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On the second Wednesday of September, 1975, 1 arrived at the office at ten-past nine I remember this not because I have an exceptional memory or keep a diary (I stay away from pussyshit nonsense like diaries and poems) but because it was my last day of work before we fled to Spain
Right after the revolution, in April of the previous year, bearded civilians and long-haired soldiers camouflaged in ragged jeans uere posted on the main roads to inspect passing cars, or they marched in the streets and the squares, commanded by the unintelligible microphones that Marxism-Leninism-Maoism had recycled from a defunct carnival Like dogs on the beach following the trail of an imaginary scent along the water's edge, they went into the country to bark about socialism to farmers they'd herded before dusty projectors; they scoured the length of Portugal in ramshackle trucks, threatening the shopkeepers vvith their squinty-eyed machine guns; they broke into houses with the butts of their rifles, brandishing arrest warrants under stupefied noses. And we had the pleasure, every Sunday, of visiting the remnants of our shipwrecked family a few aunts and uncles, "economic saboteurs," imprisoned in the fortress at Caxias There, between cell bars and the armpits of guards, they watched the Tagus River rise and fall against the stone wall. The only one not taken was the cancerous grandmother, who navigated at random in a wheelchair, her transistor radio pressed against the thin white hairs of her ear. She smiled dumbly at the democrats who periodically banged on her door and poked through what was left of thesilver with their guns, repeating the strange speeches of the carnival loudspeakers.
Since April, 1974, the Army and the Communists had been stopping before every other building, lifting their penises like animals to urinate, and coating the walls with their Lon,sJ Live This and Down With That, excrements which contradicted and cancelled each other and which in a week's time would be buried under placards urging strikes, placards announcing rallies, photographs of generals, ads for rock concerts, swastikas, anti- government slogans and toilet-stall rhymes - a love affair of intertwining alphabet fingers, slowly fading in the autumn of time. In spite of the police jeeps patrolling the streets, gypsies with chairs and tables and pots and pans invaded the abandoned apartment units. Ravaged buildings gave birth to orphanages in which children sat on the bare floor, munching on rubble sandwiches. Charcoal Stalins scouled at us on the corners. And the river swooned at the port of Caxias, suffocated by the bird- wings, while impassive tankers stood still beneath the bridge.
At eight a.m. on the second Wednesday of September, 1975, the alarm clock yanked me up out of my sleep like a derrick on the wharf hauling up a seaweed-smeared car that didn't know how to swim. I surfaced from the sheets, the night dripping from my pyjamas and my feet as the iron claws deposited my arthritic cadaver on to the carpet, next to the shoes full of yesterday's smell. I rubbed my fists into my battered eyes and felt flakes of rust fall from the corners. Ana was wrapped, like a corpse in the morgue, in a blanket on the far side of the bed, with only her broomhead of hair poking out. A pathetic shred of leather from a dead heel tumbled off the mattress. I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and the heartless mirror showed me the damage the years had wrought, as on an abandoned chapel. There were bottles and tubes lined up on glass shelves, a hairdryer exhaust pipe, and the tormenting light, which at least was less bright in the steam of the shower, behind the curtain with red and blue fish. The soap escaped as usual, three or four times, ricocheting off the tiles or forging a lathery trail to the sink while I went slipping and sliding after it, practically on my knees, blinded by shampoo, banging my shins into the toilet bowl and waving my arms in search of the balance I'd lost. I grasped on to the chrome-painted towel racks to save myself from the ortho- paedist, and finally I made it back - shivering but with the pink lanolin fish in my palm - to the consoling jet of warm water. Ana was propped up on a pillow, smoking, watching me. The trees of the Bolivian Embassy waved in the window. The spa.rows hung upside-do- n from the branches. Daytime and the smell of darkness mingled in the disorder of the sheets. I opened the drawer to take out a shirt and tie, and was met by enough socks for an army of ankles. Ana kept smoking, and men ù ith sombreros, moustaches, belted pistols and the dignity of Emiliano Zapata strutted on the dawn-lit balconies of Bolivia. I took cover in a pair of socks and underpants, and as I buttoned my waiscoat the voice of Ana, who lit a new cigarette from the one that was dying, emerged from the pillowcase:
"My God, Nuno. With a purple mark like that on your thigh, you could at least have the decency not to display it." I put on my trousers. It had been two weeks since I'd heard from Mafalda. "I bumped into something or other," I said, pulling at my shoelaces. 'lnto a fender, or a table, or - Jesus, I don't what it was. How am I supposed to remember every frigging thing I bump into?"
Ana stretched out on the bed and smiled, her forearm supporting her tilted head. One good thing about the divorce: for five years now I've been free of her sarcasm.
"Your girlfriends have awfully peculiar habits," she said with a carefully measured dose of acrimony. "Not that it's any of my business. But aesthetically speaking . . ."
"I bumped into something," I repeated, sighing, while I tied my tie on inside-out. Mafalda had broken off with me for the hundredth time for the usual reason: I still hadn't left Ana.
"You're so nervous talking about it that you can't even tie a tie on straight," Ana brayed in triumph as her liquid body spread over the sheets.
Spidery ships plodded along the Tagus. A bolero on the radio carried me dancing toward the door: I grabbed on to the chest of drawers to avoid being swept away by the torrent of flat notes.
"Nervous my ass," I said. "It's this bullshit silk that slides every which way."
The maid was brewing coffee in the kitchen. Her room was a closetless cubicle at the opposite end of the apartment, next to the metallic tree of a fire escape whose steps, like leaves, rustled and groaned in winter, in the dark. Ana bought her a trunk for her clothes and a white enamel nightstand which my mother-in-law, hopelessly addicted to doctors and auctions, no doubt picked up at a hospital sell-off. The taps on my new soles sent echoes throughout the building, from the tiles of the roof to the catacombs of the garage, where cars grazed with their grille teeth on their own shadows. The maid served me coffee and inserted two postcards of bread into the mail slots of the toaster.
"I'm not hungry," I announced to get back at Ana. "A cup of coffee and I'm out of here."
From time to time I heard coughing and spluttering from the children's room. The paediatrician treated their systems with drops and syrups, and today - every Sunday - I'm startled when instead of those thin, pale creatures, wrapped in nappies and chewing cigar-pacifiers, two teenage boys with Martian helmets and pre-moustache fuzz appear in the gloomy hall of a building where my parents once lived and I live now. They rev up their motor bikes to an angry pitch and then demand money, as if they were robbers and I were a bank.
"At least eat a spoonful of jam, Dr Souza." The maid set out a jar of the stuff. "Working on an empty stomach will make you dizzy."
Her eye make-up consisted of a permanent sty, and she did not smell like night (like the rest of the house) but like afternoon weariness (it leaked out of her uniform), as if it were already dinnertime. She smelled like when she cleared the table after dessert, turned on the dishwasher and disappeared into her cubicle without bothering to take a bath, nonchalantly emitting her melancholy goat smell. She smelled like how she smells today, almost ten years later and no longer calling me doctor or sir. Nowadays she drowns under chain-store necklaces and rides next to me on the leather-upholstered seat of my car, gripping on with both hands to her steering-wheel handbag. But in those days - the days of this book - I pushed away the jam, rejected her toast and sipped a solitary sip of black coffee. The kitchen clock read twenty-five to nine. The maid reached up to pull down a box of vanilla cookies from the top shelf; her fragrance intensified.
"A cookie for the road, Dr Souza?" The trees of the Bolivian Embassy shook off their shadows.
"No thanks," I said, pulling back my elbows like an offended fan folding shut. "If I get hungry there's a snack bar next to the office."
I crossed the hall to the bedroom to say goodbye to Ana. She was sitting up against the pillow and still smoking, meditating on the spirals of the console table. Her fingers occasionally rose to her mouth, a red point glowed, the smoke blurred her face, and her hand dropped back to a fold in the sheets where a glass nest accepted ashes. The chrysalises of my children were squirming in the room next door, enclosed in their bunk cocoons. I stood still for a moment with my thumbs in my pockets, hesitating. Ever since the anonymous caller had told Ana about Mafalda, it seemed I no longer existed.
"See you later," she said, staring sideways into the mirror that reflected the blinds and, flowing behind them, a toy Tagus River with toy packet boats. I would have liked to pull a dozen paper seagulls from my pocket and sprinkle them on the docks to make the mirror water stir. I found the fretful face of the maid framed between the African horns of the hat rack, and I was on the farm, under the elms that towered above the fence, in summer, when we were small.
"Dr Souza, there's still some sponge cake left over from yesterday."
The elevator carried my No thank you to the ground floor. The concierge, who was watering the plants at the entrance, also smelled like night, and I could hear the night's insects and crickets quavering under her apron. And the soil in the pots smelled like night - not the night of childhood but that clearer, porous night, wet with foetuses and water. Every minute or so the concierge would set down the watering can and yell insults at the boys riding their bikes through the archway.
"Morning, Dulce," I muttered, about to walk down the front steps. I was still thinking of the cake and spitting out spongy pieces with my tongue.
"They peed on my geraniums, Dr Souza," she said mournfully as she lifted a leaf that drooped like a dead rabbit's ear. "If it weren't for his asthma, I'd have my husband go after them with his gun. Come over here and just get a whiff of this ammonia. All that work and fertilizer, and then these hooligans come and piss over everything."
The boys rode past and whistled suggestively at the concierge, who started after them with the watering can, and the elms and aroma of night evaporated. Mounds of parked cars radiated in the sun. What has Ana done to the house? How has the neighbourhood changed? Still as ugly and polluted as ever? A little better? A little worse? Still inhabited by the same engineers, the same doctors, the same divorced women wearing the same fur coats? Still the same shanties of blacks and gypsies visible from the bedroom window? I pulled the car out of a long row of somnambulant snouts with headlight eyes and had to dodge rocks, sewer pipes and boards, wondering Why don't they clean up this fucking shit, until I reached the avenue that leads to the park, past the police station and the semblance of a plaza, whose plane trees were bathed in the khaki-coloured dust of building sites. I cruised through the trees and slopes of Monsanto Forest Park and past a new shanty town where women who looked like the concierge were emptying out clay pots, then past a soccer field and over a bridge, till finally I arrived at the office - not the one I have today, in Loures, with little more than grazing sheep to entertain me between patients' gums, but the old majestic one on Braancamp Avenue, in a building with a Greek temple entrance, flanked by a pub and a clothes shop.
The patients were leafing through wilted magazines in the waiting room. The dental chair occupied the middle of my office like a gallows. The tools waved their edges, the dentures their fangs. The dental assistant, passed on to me by her predecessor along with a broken toilet, was lining up the files of that day's patients and reeking of efficiency and disinfectant.
"Morning," I said. I hung up my coat on a wire hanger and donned my torturer's smock. The assistant set out clamps and rolled cotton balls. She turned on the video: a fox was chasing a bird in a landscape of dunes. Outside, September's grenades of heat were razing the city, facade by facade. The service-station mechanic, reduced to charred bones, agonized over a dismantled engine. The sun's cannons uprooted plants and patches of turf in the park. The tables at the pond-side restaurant had surrendered: they lay face-down on the stones of the terrace, dripping the blood of their paint.
"Ready for number one?" asked the assistant, obsessively rearranging the bottles and tubes and compresses while I put on rubber gloves and tried out my drill like a pilot his propeller. On the wall there was a cartoon of an old lady dentist with huge sagging breasts exultantly clasping a molar with her monkey wrench. The fox, now on crutches and covered with bandages, was stretching a gigantic net across two high rocks to trap the bird that whizzed back and forth over the desert floor. Summer was bursting the buildings as if they were acne pimples.
"Ready," I said, sticking out my navel like a posing toreador. The two phones next to the files and the coat closet broke out ringing in stereo, the dental assistant railroaded in a woman jingling bracelets, and the fishing net did a flip-flop, snagging the fox and hurling him into a cactus tree. The phones bleated like hungry lambs until appeased by the assistant. "Eleven o'clock on the 17th is the only opening I have," she said. I turned off the television (a light flickered, shrank and died in the centre of the screen) just as the bird whizzed into the foreground, stopped short, beep-beeped and was gone. I inserted another cassette. A pulsating grey snow filled the screen and, after a white strip that followed a red one, I turned up the volume to hear the fanfare for the film's title credits. The assistant put down the first phone and talked to the second. "Hello, Admiral, fine thank you, what can we do for you?", and standing next to the chair was Leslie Caron, smiling, her feet pointing outward in the form of a V. "Your crown fell out?" asked the assistant, "Then by all means we can squeeze you in today, Can you come at six o'clock? I'll be sure to mark it down on Dr Souza's schedule."
The sun continued its crematory slaughter in the plaza. My smock turned into a striped waistcoat and the office became the backdrop of a Paris street, with lampposts, trees and bridges painted in, along with the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge, the Vatican and as many other European landmarks as could fit. I took two steps towards her, pirouetted back and stepped forward again, in time with the orchestra that played in the hall, and it was Gene Kelly who danced on the office carpet, jumping over boxes of gauze, ignoring the laughing dentures, and skipping down plywood steps to a cellophane Seine lit by coloured spotlights and embellished with cardboard barges at anchor, kiosks on the bank and neon cafe signs, while in the back, near the window, a dance troupe of tray-carrying waiters and handbag-twirling hookers traced an intricate choreography between Versailles and the Prado.
"This is one of Dr Acacio's patients," said the assistant as she in her turn stepped down to the Seine in the resolute style of the American heiress who for the last fifteen minutes of the film had been insisting I accept a painter's studio that looked to me like a courtesan's boudoir.
"Dr Acacio told me to call you if I had any problem while he's away," said the woman, her image brought into sharper focus by the wide-open, unblinking eye of the dental lamp. "Aren't you the one who fills in when he goes on holiday?"
The pyorrhoeas chatted with parakeets in the waiting-room cage or picked up the hair-salon literature which the girl at the switchboard offered them monthly, in the hope that the passion between the Italian racing-car driver and the daughter of the Greek shipping magnate would take their minds off the pain. A colleague hammered away in the next office down, pulverizing an exposed nerve. The dental assistant whirled from cabinet to cabinet and chained the napkin around the woman's neck. The building opposite, collapsing from the heat, silently crashed to the ground. On the video Gene Kelly, with an air of resignation and his hands in his pockets, ambled along to his artist's garret. Leslie Caron, her head reclining under a trellis of drill bits, pulled down her skirt to cover her knees or what showed of her thighs. "I'm leaving tomorrow for the Algarve with my kids, and who knows where I'd find a dentist down there."
Gene Kelly painted hideous figures while outside his window a neon Pigalle appeared and disappeared, pulsing like a freshly dissected frog heart. A drunk and ugly friend sporting a crumpled suit and a glass of whisky extolled the work. The dental assistant was putting clamps in the sterilizer. Leslie Caron crossed her legs and looked me in the eye. Thistle blossoms sprouted from my bones and birds flew out from my torso to flutter their wings over the beach of my tummy. "Last night at dinner I spat something hard on to my plate, probably part of a filling or a chip from a tooth," and I thought, Like hell you did, Jesus how I'm tired of hearing what people can make out of a puny pebble in their Iettuce salad, and I said, "It's probably nothing." The music on the video became sombre. Gene Kelly held on to his brush, fell on to the patchwork quilt he used as a bedspread, jumped up and threw back his head to lead into his next number:
"Open your mouth."
He made a complete tour of her gums, enlarged by the little round mirror. He checked the fillings, stumbled on a missing wisdom tooth, scraped off some tartar and felt her ankle pressing against my lower leg, and more birds flying across my stomach, more blossoming bones, more tides stirring my deepest self as they flowed over a twilight of unending sands. If I stretch this examination out, he thought, if I fix her pebble with the drill, then I'll be able to observe her more closely, closer to her breasts. But I straightened up, turned off the lamp, laid down the mirror and assured her: "Everything looks fine, you can go to your Algarve with nothing to worry about." And again her leg against my leg, until I realized that the phone was ringing, until I heard the assistant say, "Who's calling?" and tap a pencil against the desk and announce, "Miss Mafalda for Dr Souza," and her thigh pulled away from me:
"Where do I pay?" "The woman in the outer office will bill you," explained the assistant, her back turned, while Gene Kelly performed a lonely tap dance on the bank of the Seine River.
"Nuno?" chirped the goldfinch voice of Mafalda. "What are you doing for lunch? I've got to talk to you. You can't imagine how upset I am."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Leslie Caron thank the assistant before leaving the stage, vvhile the statue on the traffic circle melted on its pedestal like a rotten smile. ("Olivia," the assistant squawked over the intercom, "thirty-five dollars for a woman with bracelets who's about to float through.") I could feel in my leg the absence of the woman's, the way a slab in a museum still holds the imprint of an insect centuries later. A bronze arm was sliding slowly down the sidewalk.
"The last time we met you screamed me out of your apartment," I said, and I remembered the cutesy flat in Lumiar: the hibiscuses on the rugs in the bedroom, the foyer with arrows and a leopard-stamped shield, and your screams that drove me from room to room out of the door: "I don't ever want to touch another married man," "If you don't have the guts to leave Ana then you can go straight to hell," etc., etc.
"I found a lump on my breast, Nuno. I've made an appointment with the doctor, but that's not till Monday, and - " and I translated, You've run out of drugs, as her kitchen resurrected and I smelled the eternally popping popcorn and those repugnant French cheeses laced with herbs. Her laundry smacked against the porthole of her washing-machine. "Can you take half an hour for lunch between teeth?"
"That's the most I can manage," I said, judging by the stack of patient files on the desk. "All the cavities in the world have descended on me this morning. One o'clock at your place?"
"I'd rather we meet at the cafe," peeped the goldfinch. "It seems you've forgotten our last conversation. Until you leave Ana, if you ever do, we can stay friends but that's it."
And we didn't even stay friends. How stupid it all was: the arguments, the silences, the rubber bones of our petty grudges we gnawed with such fury, the countless burned-out cigarettes and our heads side by side against the headboard, looking straight ahead past the sheets: serious, stubborn, enraged, intractable, the crease in the middle of each forehead bisecting the angle defined by our feet. You've probably aged faster than the calendar has turned, with skin grown incurably leathery and dry. You're probably still single, still driving your minuscule car impregnated with the smell of tobacco, still ignoring the stop-lights of the world on the other side of your dark glasses and your bubble-gum bubbles, still eking out a living with half-baked schemes (working vaguely in tourism, vaguely promoting concerts, vaguely translating vague French novels), still gulping down frantic cups of coffee and sucking on nauseating lollipops in your ever-failing attempts to quit smoking, still sitting barefoot on the floor when you call up friends to go to shopping malls, to see movies, to eat fish in the Old Quarter, to play cards, to plan excursions by jeep to the Algarve, to go to fashion shows, costume parties, flea markets. You probably lose weight impetuously, feel impetuously sad, become impetuously uglier, and slovenly, and in need of a bath, until the night of my forgetting closes over you in an irrevocable sigh of dried-up waters.
"I have a shitload of work to do before I can get away, so I'm not sure I'll make it."
I could see Leslie Caron in the snack bar opposite the office. She was drinking one of those juice things, apple or pineapple, which I used to slurp down with straws, and I thought about skipping down the stairs to meet up with her, but at that very moment an old lady came in to have her denture adjusted and then a man in a suit who started sweating as soon as he heard the drill, so that the end of the film left me with an acid despair in my stomach and the conviction that our pursuit of happiness is forever doomed by the cavities which, at the very last minute, come between us and a pair of fleeing sandals.
"Is your call finished, Dr Souza?" asked the dependably testy switchboard operator, intruding on our conversation like a cyst in the eye. "All the lines are busy, and Dr Saldanha asked me to put a call through to Santarem."
"I'll be finished in a minute," I said, and I was surprised not to hear a click.
"Please do your best to make it," said Mafalda. "And do something about that idiot on your way out."
"You're the idiot, lady," the operator butted in, "plus a few other things I won't mention. Unlike you, I work for a living."
"Then do your work," I said. "You've got a lot of nerve listening in on our conversation."
"I only do what my job requires," she lied, indignant. "I don't give a hoot about yours or anybody else's private conversations."
"I can't believe this, Nuno. How can you let that bitch talk back to you like that?"
"Listen to who's doing the barking," shot back the operator, "and judge for yourself who the bitch is. You'd think they could at least keep your kind on a leash when they're in heat."
"Did you hear that, Nuno? Did you hear what that slut said about me?" Mafalda was hysterical.
"And stop breaking up marriages!" threw in the operator at the top of her lungs. "Besides, if he's looking for a plaything, I'll bet anything he doesn't pick you."
Copyright © 1997 Todd McCarthy. All rights reserved.