The Avenida de Roma is crisp in the morning light; last night’s ceiling of clouds lifted away leaving an aquamarine sky with clear, shivering wisps of stratocumulus. It is a beautiful morning. It feels good to be alive.
Rising on either side of the avenue are tall white apartment buildings – nineteen-fifties modern – complimenting and coexisting with their older and lower cousins: five stories only “because people are afraid of heights.” Windows, bordered by heavy frames and punched in clean façades remind me of how a simple village dwelling could sweep skyward if given the chance; but a village it remains – there’s no denying that. Azulejos, some blue and some white and still others mustard yellow, line entrance halls. Not quite wanting to give up Deco for modern fonts, signs are sans-serif zinc jobs. I’m in Portuguese-imagined Modernism. The Estado Novo thought that placing its citizens in a modern setting, they’d become the same. Cafés and restaurants, boutiques and bookstores people our route. The state even went as far as to name the streets and neighborhoods after places it hoped to emulate: London, Rome, and the United States.
But, the old forms remain; despite a veneer of European sophistication, underneath percolates an older reflexivity and a wary tolerance of difference. This country is girded by mountains of solitude and a sea of dream: both demanding and inviting boundless self-contemplation.
We take a detour toward Cinemas Quarteto to avoid a swarm of people milling around a broken-down bus. The driver is cursing the tires and everyone stands and stares in resigned silence. Small children walk in ellipses, orbiting their mothers. I smile at a small dog pissing on the Quarteto’s sign.
– You’re quiet this morning. – Eliza says bumping into me as we double back onto the Avenida Estados Unidos da América.
– I was just thinking about what you said the other night about “your mask.”
Eliza walks a little slower by my side. I shouldn’t have said anything. She’s flipping through the pages of a mental scrapbook. Clearing her throat, her teeth clamp down on the corner of her mouth. She brings the lip in and pushes it out with the tip of her tongue:
– Let’s put it this way: the best fictions are like lies. When they sprout from life they’re more believable. Or in other words, between sighing and breathing, where does truth stop and fiction begin?
– The more I talk to you the more I think you’re trying to confuse me.
I smile and shake my head. She laughs and says:
– I don’t believe in fooling myself about anything. It is good to be direct. Some may see it as a façade, but it is a mask I wear.
– When do you become the mask?
– Because I’m not pretty, I pretend to be interesting. My ex would go to ModaLisboa and look at all the anorexic models. He said he wanted me to wear the fashion and look like the girls. And I felt bad about not looking like the models… in Portuguese we call them manequins – that’s the same as mannequins… With their fake beauty and their confidence: I wanted that façade, but I can’t.
– I get that. But, that’s fashion. I think in terms of what most people find beautiful in a body, take a look at pornography. Beauty is linked to sex appeal. The pornographic codification of the body has led to an unattainable model of beauty – individual physiology be damned. And you are interesting!
Eliza nods as we head to Entrecampos. At the intersection we face a bronze statue in a flowing gown; in her hand she brandishes a sword high above our heads; she’s obviously a personification of Victory or Portugal. At her feet is a swarm of soldiers grappling for a flag caught in an eagle’s talons. An orb, the royal arms and other shields hover over marble figures and renderings of the horror of war: a woman weeping on the chest of a man, children dead, a broken carriage, ruins. I’m sure it is symbolic of something. “Hey, we pass this every day, what is it?” “Am I your tour guide?” “Maybe?” “Let me think. It is some monument for heroes against Napoleon’s invasion.” “Didn’t Portugal lose?” “That never stopped us from thinking how great we are.” “In the States we had a civil war, but never anything this grand for the losing side.” “That’s Portugal: making more out of defeat.” “The Brits kicked out the French, right?” “Yes, we lost twice: once against the French and then we invited an English invasion. They said ‘No King, no rule, Portugal’s ours.’” “How dismal. So who are the heroes, then?” “Nobody. ‘The People.’” “How strange.” “Salazar completed this. It took almost thirty years.” I look back at the bronzes. No British soldiers are present; just Portuguese stabbing toward an imaginary enemy and staring empty-eyed above and beyond me. The base looks like a Manueline crypt; they’d die rather than forfeit the mausoleum of their past. It does make for pretty propaganda.
We stop at our usual parting place: the road bordering the Library that heads through dense grasses. Eliza says:
– You have a point about pornography. But pornography is fantasy – not beauty. I was never pretty enough.
– Pornography plays on the basest of desires in that borderland between desire and the flesh.
– You make no sense sometimes! With my façade, I’ve got you fooled.
Eliza, I want to tell you you’re so beautiful in every way. But that would be wrong: we’re friends and friends don’t say that to each other. There are some things it is best I never share with you.
– Your ex was a fool and you’re adorable. Period.
She scrunches her nose and turns on her heels.
– Tchau lindo. – She says.
– Tchau bela. – say I.
– See you beautiful.
And here I am looking at the National Library, and there you go toward the University. A nod to some college students dallying at the intersection; a quick jaunt up to the main entrance; a glance at the rose wall; a smile at another brushed metal modernist sign; I’m at the BNL’s front door; ID presented to the grey and red uniformed Securitas guard; and I’m in.
– You’re back early. Weren’t you going out tonight?
I follow the voice and I look into the kitchen. Eliza is sitting at the dinner table with a steaming cup of tea, a thick textbook and a pile of notepads. Her portable CD player’s headphones blare the rat-tat-tat of António Variações’ “Canção de Engate” or “É o corpo que paga.” She has her finger to her lips.
– My friend bailed. So, here I am. Guess I’ll do laundry and make an omelet.
– Ssh, not so loud, they’re… you know.
She makes a fist and plunges her finger into it.
– They? Oh.
I sigh and take off my shoes and walk down the corridor to my room. I swear they always seem to be at it. And why Eliza’s not at the Faculty right now is beyond me. If my roommate were humping someone in my room, I’d just leave.
Eliza pads behind me and whispers:
– No! They’re in there.
– Shit. They never do it in my room. Guess I’ll be seeing you.
I turn around and bump into Eliza. She jumps up and suppresses a laugh. We go back to the kitchen and close the door.
All of a sudden, banging echoes up the hall followed by deep and protracted sim, sim, sim.
– Is all they say is “yes?”
– Sometimes Cristo Rei.
– Christ the King? Are they seeing God or getting religion?
– They are usually quiet. What’s the occasion?
– They thought no one was going to be here. It is their chance to be loud. Claudia and I have a rule: if you are going to be loud, no one home!
– How long have they been at it?
– At least an hour.
– It has been: “Oh sim, fode-me a cona bem fundo com esse caralho duro. Oh meu Deus.” Over and over.
– That’s: “Oh yes, fuck my, uh yeah, deeply with that hard, uh yeah. Oh my God”. Eliza!
– They should leave a note or a subtle sign that they’re doing it. Boot on door. I don’t know. – I say.
– They’re always doing it – even when we are here. Just yesterday I walked in on them when I got back from the shower. Pedro was. How do I say? Taking it out of her and putting it back in.
– You said it right.
– They were all sweaty and fucking like crazy. I turned myself around laughing.
That must have been embarrassing.
– No. They didn’t stop. He kept going.
– Weren’t you embarrassed a little?
– To see them? I have seen them so many times it is not a shock. Besides, he is nothing special, if I may say so.
Eliza shrugs and puts her hands in air, a centimeter between the two of them. I crack up laughing:
– You’re a meanie, Eliza.
– I am horrible.
The squeaking of the bedsprings stops and goes like an asthmatic pile driver. A constant yelp and panting comes from down the hall.
– How come you’re here? I thought you studied at the Faculty.
– I left some books here. And I hear Claudia screaming. At first I thought I should go. And then it reminds me of the old days, so I stay.
– They’ve been at it for an hour? You’d figure Pedro’d be done by now. He’s the proverbial minuteman, right?
– He is on a drug from the vet school. Everyone’s using it.
I raise my eyebrow. She continues:
– My ex had it. It made him hard for a long time. I told Claudia and she must’ve told Pedro. They won’t be done for a while.
Sem camiseta is followed by soft, guttural fogo, from down the hall.
– Fogo? Really? They’re using the word “fire” in place of “fuck,” foda. And they’re doing it without a rubber? – I ask.
Eliza smiles at me gently:
– All the time without. She’s using the pill – but she forgets.
– But aren’t they worried about disease? Pregnancy?
– Babies are a woman’s problem. They say virgins don’t have disease.
Not according to Pedro. He’s laid a half-dozen girls already. Or so he’s said.
– I don’t think Pedro is pure.
– Oh, I know how it is. Every boy has his start with a prostitute. Pedro’s no different. – Eliza quips. – Besides, Claudia is no angel.
– They told each other they’re virgins?
– Of course. Everyone is innocent in Portugal. And not a virgin like me.
– They’re making “love.”
– What’s the difference between making love and having sex?
– The difference is the sensibility of who’s saying it. If you think you’re making love, that’s what you’re doing. If you think you’re having sex, then you’re having sex.
She leans over and kisses my forehead.
– Come on. – She says – you’re not going to be able to cook an omelet with all that noise.
We leave the kitchen and Eliza slams the front door:
– That’ll get them thinking.
The two of us walk slowly down the avenue toward the theater. The moon’s come out. She points out the coffee shop outside Cinema King. With a nod, we’re sitting across from each other at an aluminum table. Socafé sugar packets litter the table around a porcelain ashtray. A curled match rests on a bed of salt-pepper ashes obscuring SG. “Salazar é Grande,” Eliza jokes. That’s what the cigarette brand means, “Salazar is Great?” “No, silly.”
A tortilla española Portuguese-style is plunked in front of me along with a greasy mass of French fries. Eliza has a hamburger – which is really chicken-fried cube-steak on a thick piece of ciabatta-like bread. The espresso machine whirs and tired looking servers in grimy aprons yawn at a television vomiting a song contest. Two beers sit foaming between the two of us.
– What were you talking about when you said you were virgin back at the flat? – I ask.
– My ex, Nuno, was really my first love. I look at it now and it wasn’t even serious because at that time all he thought about was sex. And I didn’t give it to him – not the kind he wanted.
– I’m not following.
– How Catholic girls stay virgins.
Eliza taps her thigh.
– Since I was already thinking about finding my one true love, I wanted to believe it would be him. But I wasn’t convinced he was ‘The One’ and we kept chasing each other and breaking up again. Once we broke for good, I’ve been alone – well I did have Claudia and my friends and the flings and all that – but no namorado. It ended because he became someone completely uninteresting. I still think about it sometimes.
– First loves; that’s understandable.
– After, I felt I so lacking. How is it? Vazio. I still do.
– But, you appear to be a person full of life.
I light a cigarette:
– What does this emptiness mean? For me when someone says they’re empty, it makes me think that there’s something going on with their self-esteem.
– No. This emptiness has nothing to do with, for example, the way I feel about myself. Don’t think that I go around miserable because I think I’m not good enough. I’m someone that does what has to be done. I don’t have any sort of problem with who I am; in my everyday life I’m always striving to overcome my faults. I’m always trying to grow.
I’m nodding my head. She continues, her forehead creasing:
– With Nuno, it was easy to fall for him. He was handsome. However, it is much easier to be blinded by something more beautiful.
– That emptiness?
She laughs and looks me straight in the eye:
– I don’t like to put it like this, but it may be the most understandable way to look at my emptiness. There’re some that think we have a soul. This is some sort of light: a sentiment that you can feel. It is this soul that I feel is empty. Once again, I don’t have problems with my self-esteem, or rather, don’t think that because I’m saying I have an empty soul that I’m suicidal. Because I don’t. All I want out of life is to live and experience it in the best way possible.
– I agree with you.
– It’s like this: I made a list after I broke up with Nuno. Each answer was no: Do you know what it is to give yourself to someone? Do you know what it is to see this person betraying you? Do you know what it is to confide in someone? Do you know what it is when I believe you and nothing makes sense? At the end of it all, when he told me he didn’t want something, he’d go off and do the very opposite. I decided to close the door. Do you get it?
– I do.
– Yeah. I felt after the break with my wife. Ex-wife. Before I met you. Do you remember?
– Yes, I remember. You seem happy these days.
– I guess I’m pretty calm. Well, more or less. And you appear to be calm as well.
Eliza takes a sip of her beer:
– Well then, you’d like to know how I felt after my love affair ended with Nuno? The truth?
– If you’re willing.
– It was like this: with the greatest of care, I picked up my feelings like they were marbles and rolled them between my thumb and index finger. On bent knees and with my face almost on the floor my heart hardened. I needed to touch the ground because the light was so dim and I needed something solid. I played marbles for a week.
– I like the image. Is there more to it?
– Between picking up and shooting, I used the rain in my mind to mark my rhythm. I didn’t make my bed and no one called me to dinner. I kept playing.
– When you were in this state, no one noticed anything?
– No. I hid from everyone. In the monotony of the game, I wanted to suspend each moment so that the routine wouldn’t become a responsibility. I lost my sense of time. Somehow the rain stopped, and daily life crept into the room. I made the bed and dressed.
– If the rest of my life is to be this, I’d be revolted. And I resolved to leave that place. I decided to the close that door and to never open it again.
I say this often to myself.
– I still feel empty, though. Come on, let’s talk about you.
Eliza reaches her hand out barely inches mine. We both light cigarettes and ask for a couple more pints. She reclines a bit, elbow on the table:
– Tell me more about the party where there was dancing.
– To tell you the truth, it was amazing. We danced non-stop for hours. It was out of this world.
– Tell me about your friends. You said the girl you with… Vanda… she doesn’t like you anymore?
– I guess not. She was with this other girl. Oh, sorry. That must sound weird.
– No, go on.
– She went with another girl and left me with two guys and her roommate. We had a good time together.
– I heard that was a rave. They do Ecstasy at those.
I look Eliza in the eye and blush. She asks:
– They say it makes you feel love and then you feel very sad. Did you try?
– I have to admit I did. It did make me feel all those things and more. It was like I had fallen in love for the first time, only all at once. Everything felt so warm and exhilarating. I never wanted the feeling to end. And yes, I felt horribly sad – like my world was ending.
– Why didn’t you say anything to me?
– I thought you’d judge me.
– We’re friends. You can tell me anything. Anything.
She pauses, tilts her head to the side and tugs at hair:
– May I ask you a personal question?
– Of course. I ask you personal things all the time.
I feel a rush of warmth from my heart and hear a buzzing in my ears. She starts to speak and her mouth is a bee hive. The moving space between her teeth is dark and it is drawing me in. The ground has opened and I’m falling.
I blink and she’s smiling at me.
– Do you think we could do it sometime, together? It could be fun.
– Pardon? – I ask.
Eliza looks up at me; French fries are speared on her fork.
– You know go out dancing sometime. The last time we went to As Docas you left without going in.
– Sure. – I smile – I’m supposed to hang out with my friends tomorrow… Vanda, too.
Eliza smoothes her hair and takes a sip of her beer:
– I was really thinking about tonight. We could go to the cinema, it is right here. But I really want to go dancing.
– But, don’t you have to get dressed?
Eliza looks at her hand and twists her peridot ring around her knuckle – the gem catches the light in a soft relief.
– You’re right. I’m a mess.
– No, no. I don’t mean it that way. Usually when you go out you just look different. You wear heels and have on really chic clothes – like you just came from a boutique…
– Enough, enough. – Eliza sighs and gives a polite smile – Thank you. Let’s get back, they should be done by now. I do have to study.
We step into the cobbled open space next to Kings. From a parked car’s radio I catch the DJ saying “Morrissey” and then “Everyday Is Like Sunday” by starts playing. I start to hum along. Eliza walks in front of me; as she turns her head, I take her hand without asking and give her a gentle tug toward me:
– Come, let’s do a Country Waltz.
– A what?
– Follow my lead.
My right hand is on her waist just above the arc of her hip. My left is holding hers. “Okay, on four.”
We move together, me counting one, two, three, four. She takes my lead in stride. I turn her in and out, arms crisscrossed and back again. We step in time, moving in unison.
The moon’s diffuse light shines down on us and Eliza’s smiling.
O calor a centímetros de distância. Se soubesses o esforço que faço. Acho que nunca desejei tanto alguém como hoje. Mas só hoje. Hoje.
The heat of a few centimeters. If you knew what an effort I’m making. I don’t think that I’ll ever want someone as much as today. But only today. Today.
I look past her shoulder to the cinema’s marque with its endless white on black.
Ian Watts is a descendent of Portuguese sugar cane workers and paniola from Maui and Hawai’i. He is translating the poetry of Camilo Pessanha and writing a novel about Lisbon. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, son, dog, and two cats.