The Five Seasons of Love
Translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth A. Jackson
1. Adventures of Solitude
Everything starts when I receive the letter from Norberto, a little over a year ago, during two days of crisis and revelation. I can’t avoid what is going to happen. Some mistakes only become apparent with experience, when we can no longer correct them.
It is one of those hot afternoons in Brasília. I lower the car window, put the revolver in my purse and start the car. I wave to Carlos. He is retired from the Congressional Library and spends hours planting roses of the most unusual colors, even some imported cuttings from France and the U.S. Another one of his passions is orchids, some potted, but most grafted onto two trees in the garden. I don’t know if he loves his wife Carmen, and if he doesn’t, it's because of his good taste. He loves flowers, particularly those roses and orchids. His silver hair shines in the sun. I'm always struck by his jovial air, and above all by the serenity evident in his voice and his measured gestures. He loves soccer and sometimes goes out wearing the Flamengo jersey to play a pick-up game.
“Life is like soccer,” he had said. “It’s hard to score a goal, but the more we try the better our chances.” He brightens with a smile when he sees me and asks me to wait. He admires me, nurtured by his notion of the quality of my library and by some silly thing or other that I wrote. He was one vow away from becoming a priest. He left the robes for Carmen. He knows Greek and Latin. He spent his life surrounded by books but according to him he never kept any at home, and this is why, having left his job at the library, he wants to consult mine. Berenice, my housekeeper, committed the indiscretion of announcing my birthday to the world, and now I spot the fragile petals of a red rose picked for me, against Carlos’ massive and muscular torso. Who wouldn't like to receive a rose? It enhances the colors of this afternoon when a yellow light bathes the landscape.
Diana would sashay over in her miniskirt to receive this rose. She would tell Carlos that she adores seeing him take care of his garden and this story would have another beginning. Diana is my flip side who has always lived inside me. I should have been registered as Ana, the name my parents had jointly agreed upon. But Diana was the first name Mother wanted to give me, a spontaneous choice that not by chance is also the one that appears on my birth certificate. Since Father was against it, they ended up calling me Ana, which is how I'm known. So sometimes I imagine myself Diana, doing what I fear, saying what I silence. She always has the answer on the tip of her tongue. I bite my tongue. This is how it works: when I am who I am, I'm Ana. When I am who I want to be, I'm Diana. She is me as pure desire. We are quite similar, identical twins. Diana extends me. She extends my spirit, my body—being even taller, she softens the fullness and curves I have acquired over time—and also my skin, since she has no wrinkles and not even a hint of cellulite. She is as dark-skinned as I am. I adore my dark complexion.
Because I am Ana, I contain myself. The most I dare is to wear this pink spaghetti strap dress, black hose, red shoes and handbag. I took two long baths, tried a new shampoo recommended by my hairdresser—he cut my hair too short, which I fear calls undue attention to my nose—and I lavished myself with Boticário body lotion.
If I haven’t dated since my divorce from Eduardo, it’s not because I haven’t recovered from the scandal of our separation. It’s that I learned certain things about men. I divide them into three categories: those that are better avoided, the harmless, and the ones worth provoking, just provoking. I prefer to refuse them all, although I still fantasize about a great love, thinking that I'll find someone who will really be my companion. I feel particularly powerful, a power that I manipulate with my body, when refusing the overtures of important men. Actually, I have to admit, candidates don’t appear or, when they do, they’re married, in search of a little fling. I include Carlos—and his charming open smile, his gesture of bringing me a rose—potentially in this category, although for the first time I notice something different in his look, perhaps due to my dream.
A horrific dream. I was kidnapped by bandits who demanded cash. I didn’t have the money and they wouldn’t take my credit card, which was too thick, so thick that it wouldn’t swipe through the machine. I had a piece of property inherited from Father that was going to be expropriated. I didn’t even know how much it was worth, the government was going to appraise it, and it was finally Eduardo, my ex-husband who was going to pay the ransom. One of the bandits, who looked like Pezão, my housekeeper Berenice’s son, had tied my wrists. He was on top of me and forced my legs open. By some miracle I freed my hands, managed to grab the revolver in my purse and fired. Blood spewed from the boy’s face, and then I noticed that he was a boy, an unarmed child crying for food. Hunger lived in that child, and had ever since he was born as I could see from his ribs. The boy was the same one I had seen on the television ads for a UN program in Africa, it must have been Biafra or Somalia, and I felt terribly guilty. I would be arrested for not giving him the food he asked for and what’s more, for having committed a heinous crime. Well then, the corpulent police officer who arrested me with heavy handcuffs was my neighbor Carlos who looked at me with utter indifference as if he didn’t know me.
It’s easy to understand the presence of Pezão in this long and terrifying dream. Ever since he lost his job I've paid him a half salary to come once a week to take care of the garden. He's dark-skinned and handsome and has already caused me a lot of trouble; one day the police dragged him off to Papuda Prison, accused of auto theft. He was thrown into a filthy cell, crushed like a canned sardine, waiting for me to intercede. As a matter of fact, that day I had to seek the help of the friend who has invited me to dinner now, Chicão—it’s to his apartment that I am headed--, because I'm deathly afraid of the police, and not just because of the old paranoia from the days of the dictatorship; it’s also because I know that the police are in collusion with criminals, with the drug dealers. I think Pezão smokes crack and even Berenice worries that he keeps bad company. I fear that he and my nephew Formiga—whom no one knows by his real name Rogério—belong to a gang.
It’s also obvious why Eduardo appeared in the dream. My house still reminds me of him, and I've had financial difficulties. After my traumatic separation, I got the house, the furniture, and the artwork. No alimony. I had to live on my modest salary as a university professor. Of the gifts he gave me the only one that keeps me company is the gold lighter that helps me light one cigarette after another.
I take the Grand Axis. Ahead of me, the neon quadrilateral at the National Shopping Center is lit. The red in the ads appears to continue into the sky. Across the crimson horizon the clouds trace spiral figures in smoke. Right in the middle, an enormous reddish-gray question mark. In the middle of the sky and my life. A passing foreboding, that comes to me as a distraction.
Autumn is in the flowering quaresmas; in the still-green trees and grass. The clouds may unload more rain at any moment. But soon the long dry winter should begin; dreaded by all, except me, because the dryness agrees with my temperament, just like these empty vistas, punctuated by figures that crisscross them like little lost ants.
I called Chicão as soon as I received Norberto’s letter. It never crossed my mind to celebrate my birthday. In fact, I had decided to do nothing, absolutely nothing; I was going to stay home. “How depressing!” Chicão protested and convinced me to accept his invitation to “our trivial little supper,” as he defined it. It would be just us—me, him and his companion, Marcelo.
I live almost all alone and surrounded by few friends. Friendship develops more easily in the midst of the irresponsibility and scheming of youth. With age my quota of friends has declined, and today it is filled. I’m lucky to still have Berenice, my housekeeper, and my niece and nephew, Vera and Formiga, who have lived with me ever since the death of my sister Tereza. Her youngest, Juliana, seven and very cute, stayed in Taimbé with Regina, my other sister. Regina herself prefers that the older ones live with me; in Brasília they can get a better education.
I still have the company of my dog Rodolfo and my cats Lia and Leo, both with the same long white fur, and the same black around their yellow eyes. The three of them live together in perfect harmony. I bought Leo and Lia mainly to deal with the rat that lives in the kitchen and that seems to have a thorough knowledge of rattraps, because he always manages to avoid them. Sometimes when we come across him, he runs under the refrigerator and Berenice, Vera and I escape onto the chairs. Formiga has no fear of the rat and for this reason defends him; there’s no reason to hunt the poor animal. Rodolfo on the other hand doesn't scare him. They've become best friend.
Rodolfo always comes to greet me at the door with his tail wagging for joy. I prize this gift from Norberto, these fifteen years later, more than all the nonsense he's written to me ever since he went to São Paulo and from there to Lisbon. He's a mutt with the soul, features, and even the beige color of a Lab. The name Rodolfo came to me for no reason. I thought of Rodolfo Valentino. Chicão thinks that I wanted to ridicule someone we knew, Rodolfo Vaz. But the animal just looked like a Rodolfo, a face with that name, be it Valentino or some other Rodolfo.
I associate friendship with the period of the Useless; that was what we called ourselves thirty years ago. It was Chicão’s idea; he always preached passivity. “Action transpires more from ignorance than from knowledge,” he used to say. Ever since then, I haven't made any true friends. Without realizing it, time became a rare commodity and did away with the accessibility that all friendship requires.
Of the Useless, besides me, only Chicão and Japona still live in Brasília. I see Japona very rarely, always by accident. I get news of him from his daughter Monica who's a friend of my niece and nephew. I was only in his house in the North Peninsula once. He owns a farm, a small market in the entrequadra and the restaurant Delícias de Minas, in 204 South. At the time of the Useless, it was already apparent that his pragmatic spirit would take him far. He was always saying that São Paulo was a success because of the Japanese blood. But Chicão says that he never saw him as Japanese or as an entrepreneurial capitalist, but rather as an Indian from the Plateau. That suspicious look, that straight black hair cut in bangs, Beatles style, must have been from some local tribe. Our gang preferred to call him Japona and not his nickname Tatá, which only remotely recalled his real surname, Tanabe.
Male friends, only Chicão, to whom I can open up without worry; with whom I argue and make up. He would never trick me; he'd always defend me. When our opinions differ, curiously enough our desires in some way mesh, tempered by steady gentle warmth. Opinion does not define friendship. What counts are the feelings for one another, the affection, the tenderness. It’s knowing that when I complain Chicão listens to me and tries to understand. With him I can cry, as I cried when Father died, knowing that he would comfort me. Between us there are no demands, no ceremony or bootlicking. It’s to his apartment in 308 North that I'm headed on this hot afternoon with the rose that Carlos gave me pinned to my dress, to celebrate my fifty-fifth birthday and to talk about serious and not-so-serious things; politics and other worldly misfortunes.
Besides Chicão I don’t know whom else to include among my friends. I have always feared Joana’s feelings toward me. Just thinking about her makes me uneasy. But she was totally loyal to me when the Eduardo scandal broke. And at the age of 21 it was with her that I stayed when I arrived in Brasília. I had met her two years earlier on vacation in Belo Horizonte.
From the sixth floor window of her apartment in 105 South we could see the lake that reflected the days' moods and the hills that climbed the horizon. As they say in Minas, from a distance every hill is blue. Above those hills dark heavy clouds foreshadowed sinister things, but my superstition did not interfere with grand dreams. Brasília was “the modern city and the future of the world,” as Father always said. If he had money he would have bought property in Goiânia and South Lake. The Pilot Plan was not exactly a city. It was an idea—an idea of modernity, the future, my idea of Brazil.
For me it was like jumping over a wall and falling into the heart of the nation, a heart that beat like mine. With the butterfly shape given by Lúcio Costa, Brasília was a free point in an empty space, with the ability to fly and grow in any direction. Its ethos oscillated between the infinite heavens and the dark wet mud—where with pleasure I dirtied my feet, and that contrasted with the clean highways and the green spaces organized into large quadrangles.
A new city, a new life. Arriving at night my eyes shone before the carpet spattered with rows of lights that spread like rays in all directions. Those flames of mystery and hope twinkled for me. Their astonishing beauty made my stomach churn. That’s how I arrived in Brasília, with the illusion of adventure and freedom.
In the landscape I imagined a lifestyle, a Planalto way of being. Daring and elegant. Simple and direct. Coarse and modern. As if the confident natives of Brasília had sprouted from the hard life of the Northeasterners. There was a certain style in men or women from Brasília even if no one was born there. Perhaps it was that very foreignness, that not-belonging belonging. That shared awe before the immense sky, that excess of ground. The imagination sparked by the freedom and lightness of those concrete slabs, defying the engineers’ numbers. The stubbornness in undoing the clean design, the straight lines and the soft curves of the architects. And this with the chaotic spontaneity stamped on the dirty walls and the sinuous paths. It’s easy to understand why the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin thought that Brasília looked like another planet.
I met Joana’s friends right away: Helena, Eva, Maria Antônia, Japona and Chicão. Joana always noticed everyone’s tiny faults; that was her entertainment. She didn't even spare her friends. She complained about everything, from the mattress to the shoes, from the weather to the amount of salt in the food. But she accepted the dictatorship without any problem, claiming she had no interest in politics.
A month later, when I began to share an apartment with Helena and Maria Antônia, Joana told me that she only forgave Helena because she danced well and was the life of all parties. But I should be careful with her friends. Even today, it’s as if I can see Helena right here, her dark frightened face without makeup, her curly hair, arguing animatedly. Sometimes she argued that she would not accept that the army called their coup d’état a “revolution,” sometimes she thought that one of us seemed to think like a reformist and not a true revolutionary. And sometimes she argued for so many other reasons arising from the ambiguity of living between the drug scene and political activism. Being five years older, she saw me as naïve and inexperienced.
My room was simple, white walls, a poster, a few books, a Northeastern hammock bought in Taguatinga and already an enormous accumulation of objects and papers. It was a hardship for my parents, but until I could find a job I gratefully accepted their support. They sent me enough money for my basic expenses.
At a party in the apartment I shared with Helena and Maria Antônia, Chicão baptized the gang as “the Useless,” and we agreed that we would meet every Thursday at the Beirute Bar. Confident of our inherent goodness and of our wisdom born from a rediscovery of our own inner nature, unguarded with each other, it was not success, power or money that we wanted. It was to change society, politics, the nation, the world. And we would succeed, or so we thought, because we were not alone; the future was ours. We were companions on a pleasure trip; we would build a new era, opposed to egoism selfishness and squareness.
I had arranged my transfer to the University of Brasília. And my routine became: university, gatherings at the Beirute on Thursdays, and parties on Saturdays.
Joana didn’t go to the Beirute, and when she broke with Helena because of “class struggle,” she stopped coming to the parties. “If it’s a matter of class struggle, we should defend our own,” she would say. Helena called her a “Fascist” and they stopped speaking to each other.
Around that time Joana started seeing a much older man, an entrepreneur from Rio, that Rodolfo Vaz who Chicão says inspired my dog’s name. Six months later, to our surprise, she married him and moved to Rio. Only Eva brought news of her every so often, and it was at a party she gave at her country house near Planaltina that Joana, passing through Brasília, met Cadu for the first time. That was why, although she had introduced me to almost all the Useless—even Cadu, at that same party--, Joana was never part of the group, that later became larger with the arrival of Norberto and the Philosopher.
Joana was also responsible for introducing me to Eduardo, the only time I visited her in Rio. She lived in a penthouse apartment on Vieira Souto. She had become a socialite. At a time when following Eva’s example we made a point of dressing like hippies, she wore designer dresses, high-heeled shoes and heavy make-up. The apartment was decorated with an expensive beauty that I would call metallic, a studied vulgarity. The only personal touch was the collection of paintings that Joana said she had been acquiring over the years as an investment, most of which, according to her, in storage for lack of space.
To show me a canvas that she praised constantly she took me to her room—along with Eduardo, whom she had introduced as a friend of Rodolfo Vaz. It was a portrait of herself, although the woman portrayed front face, with a frigid expression, was unrecognizable. Secretly she told me that her fingerprints were imprinted on it and that snips of her hair, and even her pubic hair, besides scraps of the clothes she had worn on her honeymoon— her dress, her hose, her bra, her panties—and a shoe heel were glued to it.
Later I wet myself laughing with Eduardo; I always liked a man who could make me laugh, it was laughter that connected us, joined our spirits, while a drizzle had started to fall… We were strolling down the beach sidewalk talking about Joana’s cleavage, her pubic hairs stuck to the painting, Rodolfo Vaz’s ridiculous sideburns contrasting with his baldness… I can picture, as if it were today, the noisy street like an endless hallway; the car headlights illuminating Eduardo’s profile; the Arpoador rock strange in the dusk; his laugh as he sat across from me in the bar. It was passion at first sight. He had a very different sensibility from mine. That attracted me.
We had a long-distance relationship, he in São Paulo, I in Brasília. That passion consumed me to the point of distancing me from the Useless. I continued to share the apartment with Helena and Maria Antônia, until each went her own way. Maria Antônia moved to São Paulo. Helena left her documents with me. She didn’t want to burn them, and to keep them could endanger her. When she left she told me: “Some day I’ll send you word.” I understood that she was going to take a new identity and make “the true revolution” as she liked to call it, contrasting the revolution that “would be” with the one the army had staged.
Cities acquire the air of the times through which they pass. Brasília, that had been the promise of socialism and, for me personally, of freedom, no longer wore this mask. The desolation of the satellite-cities was already suffocating it. Twenty-four hours a day we breathed the poisoned air of the military dictatorship. Even in the classroom, we looked suspiciously on any newly arrived colleagues; one of them could be from the intelligence agency. That’s why I agreed with Helena. The secret police were in fact looking for her. When they interrogated me about her whereabouts and searched my apartment, they accepted the truth as truth: in fact I didn’t have the slightest idea where she had gone. On the other hand, in what could be one of the sources for my police panic, I began to have a nightmare that stayed with me for a long time, in which the police pursued me. I tried to scream, and my voice wouldn't come out; I tried to run and my legs skated in place.
Ever since then the Useless haven't seen each other. But the time for a reunion has arrived, as Norberto reminds me in the letter he wrote me from San Francisco—as evidence that those who disappear are in fact found there. And so, on this hot afternoon, I leave my house less to celebrate my birthday than to show Chicão the infamous letter that you need to read to believe. When I arrive, Jeremias, an inveterate bachelor and one of my former colleagues at the university, is also here. I keep in touch less and less with all of my extremely boring ex-colleagues. Later I demand of Chicão: “What’s this? Trying to be a matchmaker?” A table of three would be very strange, he defends himself.
I usually disagree with Chicão, but I like, really like, his eccentricities. I enjoy hearing his monologues. A fulltime critic, he inveighs against any and all with his Gatling gun, without being genuinely interested in anything. An erudite Useless, as I've been saying. His prodigious memory leaves mine in the dust. He remembers everything: names, dates, entire film dialogs and even conversations that he hears. He won a television game in which he answered questions about Papal history. I don’t care that deep down he’s a conservative and that ever since I've known him he's been dead weight in his job with National Heritage.
On this night I want only one thing: for him to help me decide whether or not to answer Norberto’s letter and most of all whether I should agree to let him stay with me. It has been more than thirty years since Norberto joined our group one night at the Beirute. He was likable and his guitar and his voice had charmed us, ranging across a repertoire that went from tangos to sambas, passing through bossa nova and arriving at tropicalismo. His features were as dark as the soil of the Plateau, angular as the outlines of the landscape and at the same time angelical, with his eyes like Alain Delon's in Rocco and His Brothers.
The Philosopher once said that each face reveals its trajectory and projects it into the future. In Norberto’s I saw poverty, the suffering and sadness of his childhood, and foresaw the refined free native son of Brasília, determined to extract milk from a stone if necessary, to discover meaning in the emptiness of the Central Plateau. If there was a Brasília man, for me he was it. He gave me his telephone number, and I spent a week thinking how I was going to gather the courage to call him.
Even then, Diana and Ana coexisted inside of me. Diana, the adventurer; Ana, the cautious. Diana, the brave; Ana, who suffered the havoc of courage. I took up my Diana self:
—I want to see you because I can’t forget your face.
—So I'm only a face to you?
— Had to call you, before it was too late.
—Too late for what?
Perhaps I meant to say “too late for love,” but I didn’t reply.
We arranged to meet. It would be better if we met just for coffee. Although I had called him so that I didn’t feel like a coward, I didn’t want to rush things. I was all Ana and immediately regretted having called, I was only looking for trouble. But he was so charming… The most handsome man on earth. I was attracted by his dark complexion, high cheekbones, square chin, imperfect nose and cat eyes; all wrapped up in a delicate and innocent air.
We went to the Swiss Patisserie, at the beginning of the South Wing. Born in the countryside to a poor family, he had arrived when he was twelve with the laborers during the construction phase. He had seen Brasília when it was nothing, a houseless field. He had made his life alone. His passion was drawing—he drew mostly faces, with ease, using pencil or pen and ink. If he could he would have made a living at it.
I attributed his evasive behavior to a supposed shyness, which only served to increase my attraction to him. When he agreed to see me again he asked me if I didn’t have a boyfriend. I blurted out: “I don’t know what the future of our relationship will be.” And for many days the echo of his silence tortured me.
We went out other times and confirmed that we had much in common. With time, my affection for Norberto reached a point where he was never out of my thoughts; he occupied all of my daydreams. Finally Diana became impatient. With no regard for the consequences she spoke openly about what she felt, that his looks had perturbed her from the first time she saw him; she was in love with him.
I shouldn’t take it the wrong way, he responded; he liked me, and that’s why he had to show his cards. Crying, he confessed his predilections. He spoke of his friend, Cláudio Reis, who came to be the Philosopher of our Useless group. I should believe that he loved me, truly loved me, but it was a love without sex. I was not interested in sex with him, I responded, I just wanted him to hold me, and we embraced, enveloped in tender feelings that moved us both to tears.
“I want you to be my friend, my friend for always,” he proposed. And I responded sincerely to his outpouring, I also wanted to be his friend always. Whatever I came to be, whether I became rich or poor, whether I married or not, he would continue to matter to me, I would always be interested in him; two old people we would be side by side sharing our desire to change the world, exchanging ideas, admiring beautiful things, laughing at the ridiculous. “I want to do your portrait, a portrait to seal our friendship,” he said. An oil painting, his first and perhaps only one.
I posed for hours on end, day after day. I think that because of his lack of experience with painting he made mistakes, mainly in accentuating the features of my face that began to look wrinkled and somber. I convinced Norberto not only to keep the painting, which he wanted to destroy, but also to deepen that tendency at which the painting hinted. Nothing to do with Dorian Gray. He should not paint me young. Better to portray me old, preferably as if I were at the end of my life, so that I could look at myself in the mirror of death, without fear of the passage of time, vaccinated against wrinkles and suffering. So that our friendship, which would last forever, would be sealed by the image of my end. “I want to anticipate all life's misfortunes, particularly old age, so that the future no longer frightens me,” I explained.
We pricked our fingers with a tiny needle. With a little of our blood, plus red ink, Norberto added some light brushstrokes onto the canvas, on one side of my elderly face. And with the same mixture he signed it below, in the right-hand corner.
Weeks later, when we spent a weekend in the country house of a couple who were friends of Eva near Pirenópolis, we had already accepted as normal that Norberto and the Philosopher would hug and kiss in front of everyone. We all had in common that we could not be old fogies. Squareness was to be a virgin, stuck up, too prissy, in favor of the military, not drink, not smoke pot…
That weekend, I mentioned to Helena my frustrated attempt at dating. “Oh, don’t tell me that you didn’t even suspect!” Norberto frequently cross-dressed, put on lipstick, rouge, and a redheaded wig and made the scene at the descent to the Main Axis, near the National Hotel, she told me. She was known as Shirley and had a preference for shaven-headed recruits. I was furious. Shit! Why hadn’t she told me before?
Thinking it over, the reunion that Norberto now calls for in the letter I show to Chicão arises from Eva’s suggestion on that weekend. She was the muse of our group, admired and listened to. She wasn't pretty, she had a rather chubby body, but she was stylish—or better, anti-stylish. If she could have, she would have been at Woodstock. She had tried acid, was a vegetarian and called herself anti-capitalist. I was attracted by her lifestyle. As much as I tried, I never managed to copy her.
For the first time our group was complete, with the presence of Cadu, invited by Eva. I thought he was gorgeous: tall, thin reddish beard, light hair… High on drugs, he carried a super 8 over one shoulder and a camera over the other. He suggested we take off our clothes and go skinny-dipping in the river. Prudish to be shocked by this proposal. I claimed the water was cold. Eva easily removed her Indian clothes to get in. Only she and her host friends accepted Cadu’s invitation. There was no naturalness in his gestures. Or perhaps that was his true masculine naturalness. He didn’t hide his fascination. He particularly didn’t take his eyes off the bathers’ genitals, and one could see his, slightly excited, swaying to the movement of his body.
Eva’s friends, the couple who owned the country house, were knowledgeable about trees and animals. We took an oxcart ride along the edge of the river and heard lessons about snakes. For the first time I was introduced to a candeal tree. I sipped the resin collected directly from the stem of the jatobá, where drops fell into a little cup. Eva’s friend explained that it was good “for weakness, cough and bronchitis.” We heard about guarás, guaxinins and moché, a local name for toads. For dinner, rice with pequi fruit and a salad of guariroba, a kind of hearts of palm cut from trees on their own property. Later, we were outside, drinking sapoti liqueur and looking at the infinity of stars in a new moon sky.
Mysticism goes well with an environment like this one. In Brasília’s urban landscape, Eva would not have been convincing as she told about her trips to the Garden of Salvation and talked about the prophetess Íris Quelemém, of whom we had heard. Besides Eva, none of us took the Garden of Salvation seriously, but we arranged to go there together. At least we were anthropologically curious, or perhaps Eva was right when she said that our materialism could not resist the slightest mystical call.
Our pact to meet again in 2000—which Norberto reminds me of in his letter—arose about a month later when we took the mystical voyage to the Garden of Salvation, from which I brought this little jar of soil. Norberto didn't forget our agreement, made under lightning and a cold rain. In the letter, besides proposing to come live with me for a while so that we can plan the reunion, he reveals some news of his own that I intend to share with Chicão. He wants my blessing and sends a photograph so that I “don’t faint” when I see him. He hopes that I approve of his new look and asks me not to tell anyone… His voice has changed, he's nothing like Norberto, Norberto is the past. He’s even changed his name. He has been calling himself Berta, but now it will be different; he had surgery to become a woman. That’s why he wants to officially change his papers and plans, with my help, to take over Helena’s identity, since he remembers that folder with her documents… The photograph that accompanies Norberto’s letter is of a woman in her early fifties, with puffy blonde lacquered Barbie hair. I almost don’t recognize him. The delicateness of the features is accentuated—the chin bones are more rounded, the nose more perfect--, but it contrasts with the thick masculine neck.
—I'm full of doubts. To begin with, the Useless no longer mean anything to each other. I never would have proposed this reunion—I explain to Chicão, after unwrapping the glass lamp that he and Marcelo gave me, and the CD, a gift from Jeremias.
Chicão taps the tobacco in his pipe, lights it and begins to throw his puffs into the air. His sixty years aren't noticeable, particularly since he no longer has white hair and his beard, now equally black, is better kept than ever.
—Ana, I insist you speak at the conference I'm organizing. Maria Antônia agreed to come. With Chicão present, there will be three Useless together—Jeremias interrupts.
Marcelo runs down the articles of the Penal Code infringed by Norberto, if he uses Helena’s identity. Just like a lawyer.
—She could even still be alive—he says.
—Just because they never found her body? That doesn’t prove anything. Some are still missing. It’s more than likely she was murdered—I point out.
—Some day she'll revive—Marcelo rebuts.
Enveloped in the smoke from his pipe, Chicão has no comment.
—Let’s trade Helena for a whiskey—he proposes.
I have three and, like him, I don’t stop smoking.
—But is it worth calling the reunion?—I ask. I don’t even have all of the addresses; Cadu’s, for example…
You just have to call Joana—Chicão says.
—Precisely what I don’t want, because then I would have to invite her too. After all, she was never part of the group.
—Do you think that gigolo still has the nerve to be supported by Joana?--Marcelo needles.
—He’s still alive, is he? I thought he had died—Jeremias, who barely knows Cadu, maliciously insinuates.
I don’t like to hear that, because a few years ago he almost did die of an overdose. Chicão turns to me:
—Don’t tell me that even you find that imbecile charming?
—I wonder if he’s still a pervert in his old age—Marcelo continues.
—A pervert, with no luck—Chicão clarifies.
I regret having recalled the poor fellow’s name.
—Eva committed suicide because she couldn't stand being married to him—Marcelo asserts.
—Just because of his affair with Joana? Eva never even suspected. She killed herself from too much vitality. She wasn’t up to her own illusions—Chicão philosophizes.
I return to the topic that interests me:
—Don’t you think that the situation is too crazy? Organize a reunion, okay. I also have nothing against Norberto having an operation. It’s his body, his life… Now, wanting to come early, spend I don’t know how many months with me and, worse, adopt Helena’s identity. Yes, that bothers me.
—All you need to say is that you have no intention of organizing any such reunion. Presto, the reason for him to come disappears—Jeremias once again sticks his nose in where he wasn’t invited, but this time I'm grateful for the sound advice.
—That's the best option—I agree.
We all go into the kitchen.
—If I had known you were without a maid, I wouldn’t have accepted the invitation—I say.
Nonsense. I love to cook. The ground beef stew is done, and Marquinhos is already asleep—Chicão reassures me. Marquinhos, three, is their adopted son.
—Our slave was too uppity, very demanding. Just think; she wanted three times the minimum wage. We couldn’t afford to keep her. Look, you’re lucky to have loyal dedicated Berenice—Marcelo says to me.
At the table, as if he were going back on his own advice, Jeremias informs me:
—I have Maria Antônia’s address.
—So do I. When I go to São Paulo I still see her—I explain.
--Now it’s her tits that are in the air, not her ass—Chicão declares, in the grave and sonorous tone that does justice to his voluminous bearing.
--Chicão, behave yourself!--Marcelo orders. He has a habit of controlling Chicão and of disciplining him like a good lawyer: “Don’t blow smoke in Ana’s face, Chicão! Don’t say this, Chicão! Don’t say that!”
--Cadu was fixated on her derrière—Chicão continues.
Deep down I tend to agree with Chicão regarding those upright tits, if I indeed understand what he means. In fact, over time Maria Antônia put some distance between us. She’s never going to come down off her pedestal to soothe a disgraced ex-friend.
Jeremias, fascinated that we know Maria Antônia so intimately, showers us with questions about her. Later, in what seems to be a veiled criticism, he simply states:
--Maria Antônia is involved with the landless movement. For her, agrarian reform can only happen by force.
After dinner, Chicão shows me a posthumous edition of the Philosopher’s thesis on Husserl that has just been published. He died five years ago of AIDS. At the time Maria Antônia called from São Paulo to tell me. I didn’t go. I didn’t know the family… I sent a telegram.
He was thin and red-haired. He spoke softly, always with a smile on his lips. He caused an enormous sensation when he appeared at the Beirute the first time, taken by Norberto. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Cláudio Reis,” he stammered, timid and formal. He showed us a little book of poetry that he had published himself and distributed in bars. That was the only time that we all had a serious discussion. “Marxism is a kind of Platonism,” he pontificated. Being an outsider and a student of philosophy contributed to his assertion falling into the good graces of Chicão and the claws of Maria Antônia. “This is our Philosopher,” Chicão declared, giving him the nickname that he never lost.
While I flip through the Philosopher’s book and the conversation continues in monologues by Chicão, Marcelo starts to nod. It’s his habit. After a certain hour, there’s no way. He ends up sleeping on the sofa. Jeremias then says goodnight.
--Perhaps there is a definitive reason not to receive Norberto. Regina is insisting that I go back to Taimbé, which is making me lose sleep. She says that Mother has been praying for the salvation of my soul… and she still wants me to return! Mother really does miss me. But it’s probably because she needs someone to take care of her and because, despite all the time and distance, she thinks she can still control me—I comment to Chicão.
--Imagine the worst: that you accept your sister’s invitation. Any Taimbé must be better than Brasília—he surmises.
--It’s quieter, that’s for sure. Which is not hard, let’s agree on that. I never imagined that I could reach the point of buying a gun. Formiga, my nephew, convinced me of the need. Used, two hundred reais. Thirty-eight caliber, the so-called big three eight. I got a permit without having fired a shot. By now I've tested it a number of times, practicing at a firing range, and I can stand its recoil quite well. It handles easily.
--But don’t you have that wild beast, Valentino, over there? Chicão always called Rodolfo, Valentino.
--Oh, him, there’s nothing brave about him. He was always lazy; he wags his tail for any stranger. Anyway, even if he were a wild beast, little good it would do.
--Then let’s decorate him with our medal of honor of uselessness! Now, seriously Ana: you should get rid of that revolver.
--I don’t expect to use it. I'm sure that it will stay on top of my wardrobe, collecting dust, for years at a time.
--You didn’t buy a gun, you bought a tranquilizer…
Except that, deep down, the revolver makes me in fact extremely un-tranquil, I notice. Who hasn't heard of a person who killed himself in his own home just because he had a gun? Things like the boy who found the revolver in a drawer and killed his sister while playing? Or the father who heard a burglar prowling and only discovered that it was his son after killing him? I keep the revolver on top of the wardrobe, but there's always the risk of some unsuspecting person knocking it off, causing it to fire accidentally. I have to keep it loaded, otherwise it would be useless in an emergency, I observe.
After Marcelo retires, I take the opportunity to confide to Chicão what Diana drags out of me with great difficulty:
--I’m becoming depressed.
I don’t reveal many other things I’m thinking: that my menopause was unrelenting; it was useless to take calcium and vitamin complexes; that everything has fallen, breasts, ass and mainly the desire and will to live; that I have become more impatient…
--And your classes? Your students?—Chicão asks me, constantly releasing puffs from his pipe.
--Didn’t you know I had retired? I don’t need to do a thing. For the first time I'm a free woman—I announce in a playful tone.
--Enjoy yourself then. Women were the ones who invented work, but really they were made for adventure and pleasure. Men are the ones who live for these daily obligations.
--What a chauvinistic idea!
--But, look—he changes his tone of voice, as if he were stating something serious--, if you want to take on a noble task, you are precisely the one who should organize the reunion—he suggests, without mentioning my drama, bringing, as usual, an ironic smile to the wrinkles around his mouth. —I just finished reading an article about the year 2000 throughout history that says that neither the catastrophic nor the optimistic predictions have come to pass. You should contribute so that at least one prediction comes true: that the Useless will meet.
--We didn’t make a prediction, but rather a promise.
I don’t blame Chicão for my decision: from this moment I'm sure that it will be better to receive Norberto. The preparation for the reunion of the Useless will be, in fact, a noble task for me.
I'm scared to death to drive alone at this hour. I don’t ask Chicão to come with me only because it would be absurd. I look around me. The block is dead. Only the gatekeeper in his booth. I stamp out my last cigarette on the sidewalk and, with my heart beating, I think how it might be better to stop carrying the revolver in my purse.
I turn on the car radio, “Cláudio Santoro,” a female voice announces. I am inebriated by the violins and by the lights on the poles pouring over my eyes through the car windshield. Although I continue to wear my wristwatch so that I don’t lose all sense of time, it has little to do with my internal clock. It only serves to punctuate my repetitive movements, my daily monotony.
When I get home, I give an especially big hug to Rodolfo, who as always comes to greet me at the door. He's here recording the passage of the years and of my friendship with Norberto. He has become patient and sleepy. He’s nothing like that restless demanding dog of the old days. As a pup, he chewed on the carpets and carried my shoes around the house. It was hard for him to learn to do his business only outside. Sometimes he ran loose on the street and he soon became known to all the neighbors. He was too intelligent to obey me.
I find a vase of red and white roses, accompanied by a card from Carmen and Carlos—in his handwriting--, with congratulations on my birthday. How sweet!
Berenice is asleep. Vera’s light is on. She studies theater; she’s studious but a flirt. Sometimes she stays on the phone until all hours. Formiga hasn’t returned. He's a headache; he has no interest in studying. He smokes pot. He wants to make videos, but he just gets into trouble, hangs out with his group of friends, including Pezão, and gets home in the wee hours, especially since he bought a used car with my help.
I suspect that I am failing in my job to raise them. It’s a generational problem; my parents instilled moral values, honor, dignity, and above all duty. We had to act with principles, courtesy, goodness, and compassion. We thought that effort and suffering made us better and more complete people. I grew up with a religious education, with precepts that later I stopped believing. It’s true that I rebelled, but I never abandoned the values of honesty, sincerity, charity, and character integrity. I've always known the difference between right and wrong.
Sometimes I invoke my father’s spirit, but without his religiousness, and being a skeptic and a pessimist, what can I teach my niece and nephew? I can’t even be heard if my message is not one of freedom and pleasure.
I ‘m anxious when Vera or Formiga go out at night. Images of violent crimes appear before me, of them dying before I do. I recall the crimes that have marked this city’s history, from the never–solved kidnapping and brutal murder of the girl Ana Lídia many years ago, to the more recent immolation of an Indian by boys who were out for a lark. I don’t know my niece and nephew’s friends, except for Mônica and Pezão. But I know they're part of a generation with no direction and alienated from the problems around them. Formiga spends the night out with friends; I don’t know where they go. He denies taking heavy drugs… I fear that he'll go from pot to crack. Sometimes he comes home drunk, he says it was just a few beers… That’s already enough to risk having a car accident. I also worry about Vera. I hear stories of girls her age who become mothers without considering the consequences. So I try to introduce the subject of the things she should do to be careful, because of AIDS. She disarms me, stating: “Believe it or not, Aunt Ana, I’m a virgin. And I am going to stay a virgin until I marry. It’s my choice. Because without romanticism there’s no point.”
--A walk, Rodolfo?--I call. Lying at my feet, he lifts his head and wags his tail. I open the door for him to go out into the garden. I don’t dare venture any farther, it would be risky to step outside.
These noises are not my imagination. I call Rodolfo inside. Someone is prowling around the house, I have no doubt. I get the revolver from my purse. I consider waking Berenice. From the window I see my neighbor Carlos, always at home, on guard duty. He’s on the balcony, framed by the blue and white fake colonial of these Brasília houses, the newspaper open on his legs, a light illuminating the façade of the house and his pleasant face. His presence calms me. It occurs to me: we would stay up half the night, two retirees, keeping watch over the neighborhood, with his wife Carmen watching us. She’s like Mother. She’s nostalgic for a time that was never as rosy as she imagines, she laments anything modern and would like us to use horse and buggy and not have television or computers. Rodolfo opens his mouth in an enormous yawn, confirming that there's no reason for me to be concerned.
I go to Vera’s room. She's in bed, listening to the radio and flipping through a magazine. On the walls, a mixture of icons: Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol, James Dean, Madonna, Frida Kahlo, The Beatles, Caetano Veloso, and other younger ones that I don’t know…
--What’s this, Aunt Ana? --she cries panicked at seeing the revolver.
--Don’t you hear that noise?
She doesn’t hear anything; she follows me to the living room, still startled; I regret having bothered her. And now I can’t hear any noise either. I look through the gaps in the window: Carlos is no longer on the terrace.
Berenice awakens and I talk to her and Vera until Formiga arrives and sends me to bed. There's no burglar, it’s just my imagination, he says, I hear too much, Rodolfo appears tranquil.
--Look, Rodolfo doesn’t prove anything. He wouldn’t get up even if I stepped on his neck. Didn’t you see that he didn’t even flinch when you arrived?
--But if it were a stranger, he'd warn us—Formiga replied.
Rodolfo reacts with one yawn after another.
It’s all in my head, stimulated by the desire for something out of the ordinary to happen and that it, whatever it is, change me dramatically. But what out of the ordinary? Something to break the glass house that I have created where nothing ever happens? Where only a few people enter, all of them fictional, who have survived from my other lives? I want to go to the heart of the matter, the bottom of the well, without examining either the matter or the well. I want the moment of truth. But what truth?
Thus begins my fixation. I'm in a hurry for this unknown thing, as long as it’s not my return to Minas. If it’s not a burglary, then let it be a declaration of love, from someone with whom I can stroll along the lake, telling him of my fear and the noises before dawn… Someone who will make me forget an undesirable memory that is always present: my mistake in having married, and worse, having left Eduardo.
In essence, I await a new passion—blind, surprising and radical like every passion—to knock me over. I await the revolution. As I turn out the light in the living room I see in the dark my elderly face painted by Norberto. I look at the features of the old woman in whom I tried to see myself to prepare for the bald bearded time that flies on quick wings, sidestepping misfortune, avoiding its traps, and thus, manage to hang onto my youth.
My youth is lost. The Brasília of my dream of the future is dead. I recognize myself in the façades of its prematurely old buildings, in its unstable and decadent modernity.
I organize my creams on the dressing table. I undress before my long vertical mirror, attached to the door of my wardrobe. I see myself full-length—from the side, the back. With age, there's no way to avoid this little belly. With exercise I manage to control the cellulite. I refuse to have liposuction. I look at my wrinkles. How much would a facelift cost? I apply face cream and reread Norberto’s letter carefully: “I’m insecure. After everything I’ve just told you, will you still receive me? My character and my friendship are the same, that I promise you.”
I lie down thinking that the noises are real. If burglars break into my house, they will actually do me the favor of rescuing me from this monotony of waiting for heaven knows what, in which anything good or bad remains in the realm of the potential. At least something, as small as it might be, will happen, something that is not just waiting for a revelation or returning in time, like returning to Taimbé. Go back, no, never.
In my insomnia laced with noises and fear, I notice a cobweb forming on the ceiling that mixes with the image of clouds that rose this afternoon, interrogating me in the middle of the sky, in the middle of my life. Even if nothing happens, I'm going to have an internal revolution, the greatest of my life. I want to turn myself inside out, my true self. I'm going to leave behind behaviors, traditions and ways of thinking, like old clothes that I should discard. This is a grandiose idea, because all of human history is inside me; it’s a drama that moves my spirit.
I sleep poorly. I feel a horrible migraine and, when my sporadic menstruation starts in the early hours, I soak the bed with blood. I awaken with a heavy head. Then I get a sharp stomach pain. I think it’s an ulcer, or worse, cancer. My legs are weak and a fever makes me shiver. It’s the beginning of the end. On the living room wall, the painting that Norberto did reminds me of the inevitable that I still want to postpone. Contrary to all my expectations, perhaps I am that face already, or a more decrepit one.
I went through a gradual process of self-confinement. Surrounded by papers I closed myself in my own world. I read books by people whose company would never give me pleasure. Little by little, I find entertainment and company exclusively in books and no longer in people. In my imagination I become friends with authors, talk to them, so that I won’t have to be annoyed by my former colleagues from the university. They're my virtual friends. They don’t listen to me, they don’t touch me, they don’t praise me, they don’t laugh at what I say, but I couldn't find more intelligent people in internet chat rooms. I also think about writing for those not yet born, the curious from the future. I talk with those who don’t have today’s prejudices and some day will understand me.
I have no desire to leave my bedroom. I don’t even raise the shade. The light bothers me. The perfume of Carlos’ roses on my night table is nauseating. The thermometer reveals a higher fever.
--Your condition is not serious, but if you like I can call the doctor—Berenice offers.
At times like this she takes good care of me. How many times hasn’t she brought me breakfast in bed, Rodolfo following her around. Whenever anyone carries a tray, Rodolfo follows, hoping for some crumb as reward, even if the tray only has a glass of orange juice, a slice of papaya and a cup of coffee, like now.
--I won’t leave Brasília, no matter how much Regina insists—I say.
--I’m homesick for Ceará.
--You tried to go back and couldn’t adjust.
--Oh, I wouldn’t go back to Ipiranga anymore, no. No one cares about me there. But I would live in Fortaleza.
I wish I didn’t have a maid… Only Berenice is much more than a maid. She's my companion in misfortune. To say that she's my friend rings false, it sounds like demagoguery, cheap populism. And, as a matter of fact, with her I don’t have a relationship of equals, as it should be between friends. She is sensible and clever, but her ignorance gets in the way of our communication. I only talk to her about the most trivial banalities. I let her take care of me. I need her company and depend on her for my mental health. I like her to be interested in me, in my minor daily doubts. There's no way to deny it, perhaps the word that defines what I feel for her is still “friendship,” there's no better word, a simple friendship, born of familiarity and grown over time. I wouldn’t ask her opinion about anything. Not even what dress I should wear. But she cares about me, likes me, wants to see me happy. I like her too, I want to see her happy.
“No one can be happy without friends,” she once told me.
Berenice is closer to me than Maria Antônia, than Joana, obviously. Or Regina. Or even my niece and nephew. Or Mother, with whom I always had infernal fights. And Chicão is a man—even if not too manly. It’s not possible to talk to him about certain things.
Looking out the picture window in the living room, while I smoke my cigarettes, I think about the time when I invariably used to lie by the pool on sunny days, and in how I have changed…
--Go back, I will never go back to Minas—I repeat out loud.
The weather is good. I bring the roses that Carmen and Carlos gave me to the balcony and take in some fresh air, with Rodolfo at my feet, enjoying the company of my niece and nephew Vera and Formiga.
--Aunt Ana, why don’t you spend some time with Aunt Regina?—Formiga suggests. –Vera and I, we’ll manage, take care of the house.
--Sure. Stay there a while, evaluate the situation—Vera says.
Those schemers. Since they don’t see any good in this sick ornery aunt, they prefer to be left alone. I become irritated. They have to be patient and leave me alone, not moving, or wanting anything, looking at the roses that Carmen and Carlos gave me, that I didn’t take care of as I should and have started to wilt already. It does no good now to bring them onto the balcony and give them a dose of aspirin.
With Rodolfo always at my feet, I smoke non-stop, while ruminating on what's happening to me. The idea of my return to Taimbé grew after Father died, a death announced months before a late-diagnosed prostate cancer consumed him. Although he was quite old, it was a shock to me. He didn’t have Mother’s strong temperament; he was always gentle and understanding. He even understood my lack of interest in concrete things. He never demanded anything of me. He thought my failings were normal. He accepted my daring to leave home to study. For that alone I am eternally grateful. However, he was mistaken in the prediction that my future would be too large for the smallness of Taimbé. “Just don’t forget about us, or your town,” I still hear his voice. “Of course not,” I answered, my eyes filling with tears.
Living in Taimbé would be a way to pay homage to him and to die in peace. I would go back there if Mother were not aging so poorly. She wants the best for me but she sees me as a child. I don’t like either her intransigence or her harangues. She and Regina wouldn’t be able to stand me for long either. I have no desire to leave Brasília, or even leave the house. I don’t need to. From here I see everything, feel everything, though it may be from inside the bell jar that I created to preserve my intimate space. It’s quite true that there's no difference between staying locked up here or in Taimbé. I have this view over the Paranoá Lake, but I prefer to see nature on television. Perhaps I have gone crazy, this is how I live. I don’t need to move. I don’t want to see anyone. I lock myself in with my memories.
--I think I'm going to die—I say.
--You’re a hypochondriac, Aunt Ana. This is nothing more than the flu—Vera tries to convince me.
Returning to my room, already with the perspective of a dead woman, I ask myself what's the use of this pile of newspapers.
--Berenice, you don’t need to buy the paper anymore!
Newspapers serve the daily function of inventing a form for the world. One believes in this form in order to enjoy the sensation of knowing where one is, but I have stopped trying to situate myself in the world.
--Buy a lottery ticket, instead of the paper.
Berenice thinks that’s funny. Because it’s the first time I've played, I have a feeling that I'm going to win big. I dream of this, I make plans. If I win the lottery, I'll change my life completely, without needing any other kind of revolution.
--Berenice, I've decided that I'll invite Norberto.
--You need to know first who he really is, right Miss Ana? You don’t even know him anymore! A man who became a woman!?
--He says that his character hasn't changed; he’s still my friend. And I’m not going to abandon a friend just because he had an operation. He was Eva’s friend, too. –Berenice had great admiration for Eva, one of her first employers. She never failed to take flowers to her tomb on All Soul’s Day.
--If you really want to…
--And if I advertise the room for rent?
--You’ll never adjust to strangers living here, Miss Ana.
--The fact is I need money. But you’ll see, I’ll win the lottery. Or, you'll find a very rich boyfriend who'll feel sorry for this poor old woman and set us both up in a palace.
--Old nothing! You’re a young thing and very pretty. --How good it is to have someone close by to repeat that once in a while!
Before I can rent the room or give it to Norberto, I need to empty it. My house is a landfill. In two bedrooms and the living room, there's no space for anything else. Berenice follows my orders to throw nothing away. And the kids are used to the objects, books and papers strewn around every room.
That’s when I get the idea to write the story. My version of the life appraisal promised for the reunion. But nothing forced. I’ll tell it with no deadline or objective. If I die, I'll leave the unfinished text with Chicão or Norberto himself.
I want to start with something out of the ordinary. But what extraordinary thing has ever happened to me? I'm simply a retired woman who, what’s more, retired too early, because of the generosity of one law, and now is poorer because of the severity of another. I had an average life. Truly average. Nothing thrilling, picturesque, amusing, or heroic. Nothing exciting. No successful love story. No fantastic disaster. No tragedy capable of pulling heartstrings. Except for the scandal of Paulinho’s story. But I won’t write about that. My separation from Eduardo, even with bright colors, wouldn’t be a plot for even the worst TV soap opera. My worst failing is being average. I live my life like a permanent daily tragedy, without a single detail that defines that tragedy. I even finished analysis--twice. Adventure is missing; a larger meaning for my existence, what one could call greatness. The sea is missing, and it’s not because I live in Brasília. This is my tragedy. A tragedy that aches, not like chest pains. Like a predictable annoying migraine that I disguise as well as possible. I manage to disguise it quite well, and not just with my skin creams! With my Mona Lisa smile as well, where Jeremias thought he saw happiness. Or else I disguise it with hearty laughs, like the ones Chicão provokes in me. They cheer up my liver. They make me forget my melancholy. I feel better just visualizing him in his usual position, hooking his thumbs in his suspenders and pulling them forward, releasing his laughter along with an effusive rock of the chair.
Here I am looking at the blank pages on the desk. They expect an enormity of me: uncontained words, like red brushstrokes. Like blood. Like the blood on the painting that Norberto did of me, hanging on the living room wall. I still feel a fever, chills. May the emotion emerge from the ink in my pen, limpid and pure.
In my imagination I arrange the paints and select the brushes. I light one cigarette after another, which only worsens my condition. I observe the smoke that rises from the ashtray, awaiting the lightning stroke of inspiration that is going to fall from the sky. Very soon I’ll depart and, thus, this text will be the last thing I write. I will remain here writing until I die. Let Chicão and Norberto then show my story at the meeting of the Useless!
I grab a pen as if it were the revolver I bought. I point it at the paper, prepared to fire. Will it be possible to discover a meaning for disconnected facts? To find the right sentence, that supports essential words, like life and love? I dissolve a large tube of red ink all over my memories, with the intention of leaving broad suggestive brushstrokes on the blank sheet. But nothing! On the paper only a white silence, a nerve-racking silence. Only a huge longing for I don’t know what. Or… writer's block. I tear up the paper, furious.
I don’t know if it’s because of this block, for having thought about the promise by the Useless, for feeling ill or perhaps simply because the end of the millennium approaches, that I make the decision to clean out my papers, as if I were preparing to cross the tenuous line separating life from death.
I reread the letters from Maria Antônia at the time of Paulinho’s disappearance, with her suggestion that I write my version of the events with all the details. Maybe she was right. Perhaps it was my responsibility. But the only biographical fact about me that would interest a wider public was my affair with him. And about that, what could I say? That Paulinho and I met when we were still children? That I saw him then as my future husband? That he was the part of me that was missing? That I loved him because I didn’t have him? That I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about his disappearance? That I believed the version that he had been killed by common criminals who mistook him for a wealthy businessman? I grew up with the impression that we were so much alike that Paulinho, black and a man was me; we were a single soul in two bodies.
Is it possible to reveal to others, as truth, what our most private feelings see? The same image, just as the same person, can be sad or happy, good or bad, depending on our point of view. The heart has a memory. Sometimes it’s called longing, sometimes, resentment. My passion for Paulinho distorts the image I have of him as much as my rancor for Eduardo. My fascination with one discerns as little as my grief for the other. That’s why, in a story in which the two blend together, I’m not impartial enough to figure out the objective angle from which others can see the truth in my heart.
I think about what could happen to me if Paulinho were to reappear one day, as in the stories of the return of those thought to have died in war. I look at the example of Berenice, who never forgot her old boyfriend Zé Maria and, even after his marriage, still holds out the hope that one day he will realize his mistake and return. But of the two, Paulinho and Eduardo, the one who exists for me, in flesh and blood, is unfortunately only Eduardo, who sends me news and asks mutual friends about me. No matter how much I want to erase it, his memory still bothers me and is refreshed each time I flip through my diary.
Then I have a flash, a vision: my story should be an innocent vital activity, as if I were erecting a new spiritual house with old bricks, just one, that would shelter my entire past. It won’t be a diary, but a book about my present in motion, in which the boundaries between past and future are erased. A present in motion until the end of my days. That’s when I develop the theory of instantaneism, whose premise is simple: reality, consisting of body and spirit, is the present moment. Truth only exists completely in the moment.
Unlike Funes, the Memoirist, the Borges' character who forgot nothing and remembered everything, I am going to cross my River Lethe to forget everything, to have the freedom to think and write spontaneously, guided only by desire. I will put aside the future, so that I don’t construct illusions or predict disasters, which, rather than avoiding them , may even accelerate them. I want to capture the moment, to start from zero. Without any baggage from the past. Without history, without direction. I want to erase myself. To immobilize myself. To condense my life into an instant, to live entirely in it, of it, just like my dog Rodolfo, here at my feet. The instantaneous present. A moment prolonged, like a blurred picture or like frame after frame of a film that doesn’t stop rolling. Zero, the moment in which I write, one step from the abyss and from paradise. With me it often happens: I see a single thing as both the promise of heaven or hell. In the blink of an eye, what is light becomes dark. Everything here depends on a moment, hangs by a thread that can be anything from the tenuous line that separates life from death to my mood or some insignificant nothing.
I'm going to rely on the revelation I've had—I think ultimately this is what it’s about, a revelation—to take the great leap. Sometimes it’s better to have the courage to start over, to discard. Even loves. I'm not one to keep things that torment me. That’s why I need to rid myself of Eduardo once and for all. If I can manage to restart from zero, I'm also fulfilling the promise made at that gathering thirty years ago. And the other Useless? Will they make a similar effort at spiritual renewal?
The smoke from the cigarette rises from the ashtray like a chimney. Rodolfo looks at me out of the corner of his eye, surely suspecting that I have gone soft in the head. He lowers his head onto his paws, furrows his brow and lets his sad look become lost in the infinite, a more concrete infinite than mine and on a level with the floor.
I say that all of this “happens” now and not “happened” one day, because I want to describe this instantaneous presence that is always in motion and is defined by it, leaving the endless blotchy stains that I mentioned; I want to show the inside of the moment. The instantaneous present tense of things past. After all, the past is only the trail of an instant, at any instant.
So? In this instant I think that I will live aimlessly, simply traveling within myself. The important thing in life is not just to reach a goal, to arrive at a place, but to enjoy every moment. Because the world doesn’t stop spinning, the nature of the journey is more important than its destination. My fears and projects have nothing to do with objective reality, because I’m bewildered and I’ve already lost all sense of objectivity. I have no interest in knowing what is real beyond the perception of an instant, that catches a look of surprise or pain, a furrow in my brow, my right shoulder contorted, my body unbalanced, fright raising my left hand, while, as in a painting by Caravaggio, my right hand hovers tensely above the boughs and fruits strewn on the table, my middle finger pointing down, from its tip hanging a greedy lizard that bites me. To the side, the water jar in the painting’s right hand corner is quiet and translucent, drops visible on its surface. It contains a camellia and its stem, sister of the one I wear in my hair.
Looking at the sheets of still blank paper, I feel that truths are deposited in larvae of words, awaiting even the most banal and unexpected situations, that can bring them together to give them substance and meaning.
After many shaky nights, in which my state of health only deteriorates, I make a startling discovery. The idea comes to me when I think about the relief of not having to read so much disturbing news ever since Berenice stopped buying newspapers. My new task will certainly give me pleasure for months on end. It’s not only newspapers that I don’t need. I make the decision to sort the mountain of books, letters and other papers accumulated throughout my life, with the intention of transforming them, as if I were a mill, into a floury mixture of words, that I will then put—all of it—into the same sack. Just having this idea makes me feel light and satisfied and I can finally continue my story. I turn on the stereo, and listen to the lively CD that Jeremias gave me as a gift and I even dance alone, like a crazy woman, to celebrate an I don’t quite know what that unblocks my mind and my soul. Fortunately, only Rodolfo witnesses this state of exultation, and he even enjoys watching my movements.
Not that I had a brilliant idea or even invented something, I know. Ever since the Sumerians, five thousand years ago, invented their writing to record messages, register facts and thoughts in a permanent way… Ever since, the Semites, almost four thousand years ago, created their alphabet, the father of almost all of the world’s alphabetical systems, writing can be erased, transformed and lost. Ever since language came into existence sixty thousand years ago, tongues have been able to eat tongues and also to preserve the moment forever.
The method will be as follows: I will replace the absence of the papers that I tear up, with new words that I will be writing on blank sheets of paper. This way, I will leave a pain on one sheet, a joy on another, on another grief and sadness. From the books it will be enough to extract what was retained in my memory. I want to free what weighs it down.
In fact, memory is a filing cabinet with closed drawers. Some of the keys to the drawers are made of people, objects, things around us, letters, photographs, and books. Each letter, each one of them, opens an enormous drawer of memories, that would perhaps stay closed forever if the letter were not there, physically exhibiting its sentences. By destroying each letter, I will be opening one of these drawers, thereby multiplying the possibilities of the writing of my farewell narrative that I intend to continue composing little by little, a paragraph here, another there.
To become naked and light, free myself of the papers, be reborn free of the weight of the past, is all that I want. With faded ideas it's difficult to avenge myself on sleeping words. Nevertheless, the papers are going to scream, to weep as they are ripped up, restoring life to the ideas and sentiments stored in them. From now on, my instructions are: nothing kept, nothing saved. The moment to dispose of everything I have been accumulating has arrived. And also the moment to free words from their blocks—of granite—made from the emotions time has silenced. Let them emerge, like sharpened knives, sculpting the spirit of the instant. I want to live as in a hypertext that never stops constructing itself, in which writing is a continuous and unending dialogue with the mind or a counterpoint for life. I want to erase all of the books, to allow the natural book to shine, alone: the one they believed in Yucatan, that wasn't written by anyone, that turns its own pages, opening each day to a different one, and because it’s alive, bleeds when they try to turn its pages. My interior revolution depends on the courage to continue composing the text, always in the present, while I dispose of accumulated papers. The absent papers will increase my space of freedom.
Seeing my cleanup, Berenice complains:
--Please forgive me, Miss Ana, but it’s crazy to get rid of your papers.
--You may throw them in the trash, Berenice.
--You're making a mistake, mark my words.
--Then leave them all there in a pile. I’ll decide later.
It’s better to make an enormous pile of paper anyway. For example, I can temporarily put in a pile in one corner everything that has to do with love. Despite having mistreated me so badly, love deserves my consideration after all because it contains all virtue. The love pile will perhaps make me see differently than what life has taught me, or simply confirm in the end that I can’t have the impossible, that is, the other who measures up to my dream.
I'm going to clear shelves, empty the house, beginning with the room to be rented perhaps to Norberto himself. The papers that bother me are so much a part of my life that the only way to discard them is to transform them into the flour of words I mentioned, sparse dense flour, pounded until it becomes a stone book, a book of life that is as simple and mysterious as a stone.
It will be my version of the Livre Absolu that Mallarmé tried to write at the end of his life and finally destroyed before he died. Or perhaps the one quoted in Borges' short story, “La biblioteca de Babel,” which completely encompasses all other books. Writing it should help to free me from the books in my library and from the accumulated papers—letters, notes, poems, pages and pages of diaries and other writings. It will be my museum of everything, dumpster or file cabinet.
I’ll begin the struggle, then. And from the start this is my odyssey of many waves and currents, in which I face winds and storms in an infinite sea, a sea of many encounters, where I travel alone. Alone with my papers and my pen.
I write with the same style with which I live, in other words, as the mood strikes me. I lose ideas in the middle of the path and include in the text whatever comes to mind, without discipline. I have nothing to lose. Only words. And how good it is to discard words and still be capable, as in a factory, of producing others. Holding onto words excessively, protecting them, makes it difficult not only to expand on the text but on my very life.
Passing from theory to practice, I look for the file of correspondence from Eduardo. My absolute priority is to rid myself of him. I should disinter everything that remains of him in order to transform it too into this new flour: in addition to letters, loose sheets with my notes, drawings and also poems. Destroying these papers will make me forget him once and for all. Then, the pain that continues to throb after so many years will finally stop. And what if I were to write to him, returning his letters? Eduardo is much more than one drawer among these papers that I want to destroy. My fingers stain yellow from so much smoking while I flip through the folder. I continue to separate the papers while I review my life with Eduardo, as in a novel. There's no better test for my project. If I manage to rid myself of this folder and am still able to record, in a few words, what I can best extract from my experience with him, I will be successful.
There was a time when I admired Eduardo. But I came to the realization that my love for him was less and less sufficient. Either I was crazy in love with him, or I thought that I didn’t love him. Either he wept at my feet, in love, or I feared that he didn’t love me. After a few years all that remained of the love that we had for each other was only the harsh daily routine. His presence became trivialized. I began to think him uninteresting, absorbed in his banal politics and his business interests. One day I missed him less than I missed solitude itself. And then he began to bother me. He thought only about sex and work, not about tenderness, or love or me. He wanted success; I wanted happiness. When I wanted to burn in the fire of passion, he offered me security.
I had to get out, as if I were escaping from a prison in which I had confined myself voluntarily out of a fear of taking a chance or of being alone because I thought that alone I was nobody. If I had children, I would have waited for them to grow up. I didn’t need to wait any longer.
Eduardo was responsible for my state, above all for the end of my love for him. He was guilty even for my having resumed loving Paulinho, my childhood friend, with whom, as a young girl, I had my first pleasure that all of the others would try to imitate. Fate brought us together. I would have no other reason to love him except that he was he and I am I. I never forgot him. I always imagined that it would be possible one day for us to find each other again, to live together. That original source was Love with a capital L. There's no objectivity in these things; love was the emotion that was mixed into my childhood with Paulinho. All love had that smell, that light, that heat, the pleasure of those same physical contacts.
When I found Paulinho again, I thought only of him. It was an obsession that even caused me to lose weight. I feared that he didn’t feel the same way. I accepted the risk, perhaps because it wasn't a matter of choice. I was in love, and nothing diminished my desire, not even my fear of the ridiculous. They say that passion that doesn't end isn't passion, but what I felt for Paulinho wasn't like a passing fever. It was like a fire sparked by the never-extinguished embers of a young love. Despite that, it was truly passion; I recognize it by my suffering.
During Carnival, he sent word that he was waiting for me at the country house. I didn’t confirm that I would meet him, but, when I found out that he had disappeared, I even imagined, out of pure spite, that Eduardo had murdered him and that he would be capable of killing me. I ended up denouncing him, stupidly, without any proof.
The worst thing that could have happened to Eduardo was to be called a cuckold. And he was. In public, in newspapers, in magazines, even in a book by a journalist from Brasília. What's worse, he was seen as a meek cuckold. He wanted to get back together; I was the one who refused. I was wounded by some of his words. There's no antidote in the dictionary for certain words that hurt forever. He still thinks about me, after everything that happened and everything I did; he might even leave Alaíde for me, if he knew I was willing.
I had to marry to learn what it is to have a man at my side. In return, I learned that a husband and wife were not made to understand each other. Before, I imagined that there was no happiness without love. Later, I discovered there's no happy love. Once corrected the youthful error of thinking it was possible to change one another, I was convinced that love is, in fact, a brief insanity, and marriage a long folly.
I'm pleased with the ease with which I rid myself of the papers in Eduardo’s folder, without even feeling the need to transpose a single word from them for my story. These are good omens for my project. Until I find a passage, apparently of no importance, written soon after the wedding. It’s funny and describes a dream. I’m at a party; the house is Joana’s, not her real house, but rather an enormous house with a garden overlooking the sea. I’m on the verandah, like the verandah of a Minas Gerais estate, where several hammocks sway in the wind. I wave to the people scattered around the garden where I see the incandescent red of the geraniums shining under the sun. I’m attractive, wearing a black muslin dress. Inclined over the balcony, I continue watching the movement of the guests and then come the scenes that I would rather not tell. It’s enough to say that I can’t manage to destroy this sheet of paper already yellowed by twenty-five years of abandonment. Why? Because, as opposed to the other sections of the diary full of complaints, this one leaves me happy. It even makes me laugh, remembering how alive I was and bringing back the memory of Cadu.
João Almino (b. 1950) is a Brazilian writer and diplomat. He is the author of the acclaimed Brasília Quartet, which is comprised of the novels Ideas on Where to Spend the End of the World, Samba-Enredo, The Five Seasons of Love (published in Portuguese by Editora Record; published in Spanish by Alfaguara, México; in English by Host Publications, Austin/New York) and The Book of Emotions.
English-language translation copyright ©Elizabeth A. Jackson.