An excerpt from a novella by Caio Fernando Abreu, translated from the Portuguese by Ed Moreno.
He lit a cigarette. He followed the smoke streaming toward the open window with his eyes. Absentmindedly. As if he might stop talking. Then he smiled again, to one side again, and went on: “Something perfect. I insist on perfection.
“It’s like this. An instant before perfection. Perfect, about to unfold and—bam, just like that—nothing! Doesn’t happen. And then—when you can’t work out what did or didn’t happen, or why it should or shouldn’t have happened—someone comes out of nowhere and punches you in the gut. And the hand you knew would hold something—bam!—empty again.”
He extended his hand. Observed his fingers, his half-smoked cigarette, repeated, dramatically, “The hand you knew would hold something—bam!—empty again.”
He jumped up. He bent his body in an exaggerated bow, looking to the front, to the sides, up to the crowded balconies—expressing his gratitude for the thunderous applause, the blistering bravos! Alone on an empty stage filled only by his presence, the stage set, and dozens of corbeilles de rosas—most likely red.
At the same time, the other said—slowly, feeling foolish, searching for the right words—“You could’ve been a dancer.”
The response was deadpan. “It’s too late for that now.”
“Or an actor, you could’ve been an actor. You have an incredible sense of—”
“Right, an actor. At least I can talk about other people’s work, which is always some consolation. Or not.”
The other detected, who knows, a certain melancholy in the depths of a voice roughened by too many cigarettes. But he only shook his head in silence—crystal, the moment of transition from one to the other—as he walked toward the bookshelf in steps so precisely placed that they seemed to have been choreographed. As did what came next.
“Listen,” he said, leaning against the bookshelf, “I had an idea. It’s been a few days since we ran into each other, but now that you mention it”—the other made a face as if to say mention what, but he went on—“about being a dancer, or an actor. Or, I don’t know, whatever—I don’t like it when people go on about what didn’t happen, what could’ve been. Oh, God! Not on a Saturday—especially not at night. Not tonight, please—tonight’s no good. I have… I’ve got this feeling of resentment—of failure. You get it? As if I had a duty to be, or to have tried to be, someone else.”
But you’re such a successful guy, the other almost said. But he still felt foolish, stuck there like a bull grazing in mud, and kept silent. It was as if they were rehearsing a script he hadn’t memorized: he’d forgotten his cues, so he stared stupidly at the half-full glass of wine. But he was coming back from the bookshelf, improvising quickly to cover the other’s slip, three books in his hand. He sat on the arm of the sofa, showing him the covers.
“Do you know these books?”
Slowly, he read the titles in Spanish: Los premios, by Julio Cortázar; Crónica de una muerte anunciada, by García Marquez; and Conversación en la Catedral, by Mario Vargas Llosa. He gently touched the covers. A certain distant fondness. Intense, like someone touching an album of not-so-old photographs, the bright colors already giving way to the yellow of time on paper. He smiled, halfheartedly. “Of course I do.”
“Know and like? Or know and don’t like? Or know and don’t care? Come on—multiple choice. Or tick the last box—the one that says other—and on the dotted line, specify what you mean by other, right?”
What has that got to do with? He thought, My God, what has that got to do with… Threads he didn’t follow. Bogged down in mud, Taurus, the bull. He had to lift his head slightly to better see the face beside him on the arm of the sofa: upside down, over his shoulder. Unshaven beard, two days’ growth. A few silver strands in his hair. Lowering his eyes, he noticed the frayed knees of the acid-washed jeans.
“First box,” he said, drawing a big tick in the air.
“Know and like?”
“Yes. Very much.”
“Listen up, ladies and gentlemen. Pay attention, please: so tell me, and which do you prefer?”
He rested his head on the back of the sofa. Beyond the face so close to his own, he saw spindly cracks between those plaster embellishments typical of large aging apartments in the city center. Their eyes met unexpectedly. He turned his away, back toward the ceiling, while thinking without thinking: how extraordinary. And at the same time he thought of a ship leaving the port of Buenos Aires, and the sound of the accordion came to mind, unwanted (the stereo had already been switched off), how extraordinary, and how swift, the waters of the Río de la Plata, always crossing, inevitably, in the streets, by chance, someone, they turned away, quickly, afraid, even in a random street in Lima, but he’d never been to Peru. So timid, like those creatures he’d mentioned—how’d it go? Machu Picchu—he’d always wanted to visit, it must be beautiful, unbearably mystical—you must reach carefully within silence, within the eternal, was that it? As if—in that brief encounter, graze, flicker, fishhook, one lighthouse signaling here, another there, powerful reverberations, answering, or not answering—there was a menacing, indecipherable code, more powerful than anything. Then, sweeping everything else aside, the image of a young man dressed in white, backed against an old door in the afternoon, dark wood—oak, mahogany—then the knives, the deep stab wounds—were there seven?—, his blood staining the white linen, like blood roses strewn across the empty stage, then the applause, the curtain’s fall, the dressing rooms, the wings. He blinked. And turned to look at him. “Death,” he said. “I prefer Death Foretold. I remember it so clearly now, like a photograph, amazing: Santiago Nasar backed against the door, and everyone knowing he would die but him.”
He jumped up abruptly, causing the other’s arm to tremble slightly, sprinkling a few drops of wine on the thighs of his white corduroys. Like Santiago, he thought—Santiago Nasar’s blood staining the white linen suit.
Standing in front of him, solemn, comical, the other reached out, the small book in his hand like a sword, to tap him ceremoniously on the right shoulder, a king conferring knighthood. “I dub thee Santiago. You must swear eternal loyalty to this name. On this cold July night, I christen you Santiago. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.”
But he didn’t hear. He never stopped talking. Putting the books on the album cover—which he couldn’t quite make out—he went on. “Pérsio. I’ll be Pérsio from now on. I always wanted to be called Pérsio. Do you remember Pérsio, that kook from Los premios who gazed at the stars from the quarterdeck? Is that what it’s called? Quarter. Or main. The open part of a ship. Or poop. Where’s the poop deck? Boats have so many parts. Prow and poop, locks, hatches. That crazy Pérsio was an astrologer. I think. Or an astronomer, I’m not sure. Or just plain crazy. Whatever it was, I’ll have to go on about the stars. Pérsio didn’t know shit about stars.” He walked to the open window and looked out at the sky. A Coca-Cola ad shone in the distance, red, white: drink.
“But the stars are never visible in this fucking city, or else I’d be talking about them now. It’s all right, I can do it later—who knows how this ends, right? It’s gonna be a long night, after all. The night is still young, the night’s just a baby, man! You’re Santiago. I’m Pérsio. And Santiago and Pérsio are doing the town on this long winter’s night. Are you with me, Santiago?”
“No,” the other said, grinning (was he mocking him?). “I don’t think so.”
He turned from the window, spread his arms, slapped his palms against his thighs, excessively downcast. “What do you mean no, man? What’s to understand? It’s easy. From now on I’m Pérsio and you’re Santiago. Okay, Santiago? Don’t you like the name? It’s fantastic, man. Apart from Santiago Nasar—who you like—there’s Santiago from Catedral, that journalist obsessed with poverty, the faggot son of a politician. It’s a double homage. Like Rubem Fonseca did with “Simone Clarice” in that story—what was it called, “Lonely Hearts,” was that it? Not to mention Santiago de Chile—may God watch over Allende—ah, it’s a triple homage!”
He walked toward the sofa. “Triple homage? Try quadruple! God, what a great word, quad-ru-pull. Remember Buñuel’s The Milky Way? Santiago de Compostela. Spain. Galicia, right?” He stood right in front of him, so close that the toes of his blue-and-yellow-striped socks—loud as a Swedish flag—almost touched the tips of his white tennies.
“And there are more: there’s Santiago de Boqueirão, in Rio Grande do Sul, on the Argentinian border, land of the gaucho, have you heard of it, tchê, mano, bro? It exists. Care to see it on a map? I’ve got a friend from there—whatever happened to Ruy Krebs?” He leapt up, his eyes wild. “It’s impossible for you not to like this name. It’s a quintuple homage, man. There’s even more, geez! There’s Hemingway’s fisherman. Sextuple. There’s more if you look. There’s no shortage of Santiagos.”
His excessive enthusiasm was comical. Or crazy. Ex-tra-va-gan-za, he drew it out. He sipped his wine, laughed awkwardly. “The name’s fine. It’s not that. What I don’t g—”
“Say: quote unquote, ‘The name’s fine. It’s not that, Pérsio.’”
Their eyes met again. How extraordinary. In the street, on the bus, in the elevator. Do you recognize me? If so, do I scare you? The plague they accuse us of. How horrific. He lowered his eyes—they were almost always looking down—at his feet, the stripes, blue, yellow, the maroon rug. The other dropped his knee to the floor in a melodramatic appeal.
He laughed. “You’re crazy.”
“Say it, say it, please say it.”
“Okay, I’ll say it.” Trying to contain his laughter, laboring over every syllable in a faltering Spanish, he said, “No, el nombre me gusta. Tudo bi—” He started laughing uncontrollably. He had to put his wine down next to the other’s knee on the rug.
“Ah, come on, say it, one, two—”
“Okay, Pér… Pérsio.”
“What did you say, Santiago?”
“Pérsio. I said, ‘Okay, Pérsio.’”
The other clapped, laughing. A cat in midday sun, stretching itself on the rug in an enormous living room. He crossed his arms and gripped the worn knees of his faded jeans. “You called me Pérsio!” He rubbed his hands together. “We’ve only just begun, and it’s going so well. What a beautiful name, man! No one’s named Pérsio. It isn’t an homage to anyone.”
The other shook his head, still laughing. He sat on the floor with his legs crossed like a yogi, contemplating a point on the wall somewhere above his head.
“Except for Persia. All those rugs, cats, Sorayas, ayatollahs. Even Persia’s not called Persia anymore, right? It’s Iran. I have a friend who clutches her heart and rolls her eyes whenever anyone mentions Iran or the Northeast. ‘Jesus,’ she screams, ‘Iran, my God, Jesus, the Northeast! It’s no wonder I drink so much champagne, goddammit!’”
“Hey, Pérsio, I don’t get—”
“What this has to do with what I said before.”
“Before, about being a dancer. And what you said after that, about…”
He rocked back and forth over his crossed knees, earnest, aping a catatonic fit, eyes transfixed on a distant spot on the wall, far above his head, “I know, I know. I just hate talking about what we could have been. It feels like—”
“Bingo. Failure, regret, defeat. Something out of a Walter Hugo Khouri film—no way. I decided right then that we weren’t gonna talk about what could’ve been. Not this Saturday night in July when we’re out on the town—not when Santiago and Pérsio are doing the town. Got it? Tonight we relinquish all regrets precisely because you’re not João or Paulo, and I’m not Carlos or Pedro. You’re Santiago and I’m Pérsio. It’s a political statement, right? Spot on, perfect—so much better than names like, I don’t know, Jean-Paul or Vittorio or Steve or Wolfgang. With names like ours we can paint the town without repercussion—from uptown to downtown, champagne to cachaça, Jardins to Jeca, disco to dive bar. Guilt-free, man! Two Latin-American dudes doing the largest town in South America.” He sang off-key, “Vivemos na melhor cidade da América do Sul. Baby baby. Há quanto tempo—how long?” He looked straight at him when he asked, “It’s been a long time, huh? Since high school. Since the green years in the province. Remember The Green Years? Who would’ve thought?” He stood slowly, extending his hand. “What do you say, Santiago? Do you accept the names I gave us?”
He took hold of his outstretched hand. Warm, kind. Just like his face. A face which, if you erased a few white strands at the temples—nearly invisible, little more than silver flashes when the light hit… and that deep crease at the corner of his mouth (ah, that lopsided grin). He shivered, a chill on his neck—the window was still open, but it wasn’t cold, just a not-quite-frozen chill which carried something from faraway with it, something crystal-clear yet half-obscured: a field of grass, oddly slanted. The setting sun, scent of dirt, chin resting on a size-five leather soccer ball, the special ones you only get at Christmas, not like the black-checked balls you see today, a blade of grass between his teeth. A face which—if you took away the zits from then and the blue of today’s two-day-growth… sweet sournesss on his tongue. Back then a voice which rose and fell like a rollercoaster veering between treble and bass, transforming, overlapping, late afternoon, the sky, the grassy field, smooth hair on overlapping hands, clasping, warmhearted: I do recognize you, yes, so well, a long time, so much.
“Well, Santiago?” he asked. Seen from here, upside down, his eyes seemed to sparkle. Dark, bright. Slightly damp. “What do you say? Do you accept?”
He squeezed the other’s hand. “Yes, Pérsio,” he said, “Of course,” and realized that he was trembling. Could it be that he saw something beyond all that? Abruptly, Pérsio withdrew his fingers to rub his palms on his bare arms. “You cold? Why don’t you put on something warmer?”
Pérsio, in silence, no longer gazed above his head or into his eyes, but through him to a region so unfathomable that it wasn’t him he was looking at anymore. And it was.
“Should I close the window?” He stood without waiting for a response, shook his half-asleep legs: half-asleep from wine, the damp of the rain, July’s cold, the length of time he’d been sitting there, the other’s crazy stories. He had to swerve around him (whiff of weed and cigarettes, clean sweat, warm sheets) to reach the window. In the dark below, he saw the gleam of headlights, bright billboards—Minister, Melitta, Coca-Cola, smoke, drink, buy, die—floating, hovering, spaceships. The windows of other buildings, some lit up red-hot, intimate as a nightclub, the vague eroticism of nebulous silhouettes in other people’s rooms: others who might kiss each other, fondle breasts, stroke thighs, dip fingers into moist hair. They moan softly, urgently, behind drapes, between parched plants. Throaty moans of urban pleasure.
On the asphalt several meters below, puddles reflect the neon’s artificial glare: the inverted Saturday night pulsing in the middle of the street. A great dark sea, a calm high sea, over which they (God, the captain of a transatlantic liner, a helicopter pilot) had spattered phosphorescent paint. Carefully, he closed the windows. The clang as one metal handle penetrated the other mingled with the piercing chime of the phone.
Pérsio let it ring, hand poised above the glass-topped coffee table in front of the sofa. Before picking up, he winked. “Urban Telephone Etiquette,” he said, “Weekend Edition. Lesson One: always allow three rings, or else you seem desperate. No one can know that you live tied to the phone. Especially nights and weekends. Obviously. Of course none of this matters if you have an answering machine, which, sadly, I do not.” He answered coolly, “Hello? Speaking.” Receiver balanced between his right shoulder and his chin, he searched the table for a pack of cigarettes with his free hand. He lit one, took a drag. “Good, you?”