Sunday evening

About the roof repair, I have nothing new to report. The tiles were supposed to arrive yesterday; they did not. I rang that young man at the store to give him a piece of my mind, but he’s always so nice that I forget I called to quarrel. He told me the news about his mother (new boyfriend). We chatted for fifteen minutes, and it wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I realized I’d once again neglected to give him an earful. Meanwhile, the roof is still in shambles. It continues to leak, and of course now the walls are following suit—they’re covered in great big stains. Once the roof is done, I’ll need to fix the walls. One thing at a time. I can’t complain, though. All this leads to phone calls, conversations. If it weren’t for the roof tiles, I’d never have found out the boy’s mother has a boyfriend—it’s Celso, the one who drove a Ford Corcel when we were young. The boy at the store told me his mother is happy because she always had such a crush on Celso’s Corcel, and it’s just a shame the car’s long since been sold, she said. “All things in good time,” was what the boy told me on the phone. He was talking about his mother’s relationship, but a bit about my roof tiles, too.

Today I had lunch with my good friend. It’s been two months since he had that fall, in his hallway. My friend thinks it’s been more than two months, a lot longer, but that’s because he’s always in pain, etc. To this day, he can’t say how it happened—it wasn’t loose shoelaces this time, apparently. When he fell, my friend slammed his shoulder against the door and just lay there on the floor stunned, not knowing who he was or who that newly broken shoulder belonged to. The doctors gave him one of those slings that straps your arm against your body, and then they wrapped everything up so he couldn’t spread or even raise his wing. 

After that my friend’s memory started to go. No one knows exactly why this happened—he didn’t hit his head on anything. My friend was terribly frightened because in the moment he tripped, he had time to realize he was going to hit the door on his way down, and that it was going to do some damage. He must have managed to duck his head and shield it from the impact, but he doesn’t remember. He says it must have been nothing more than a reflex. He protected his head, but the fright made him lose his memory.

My good friend is the one with uneven eyes. I’ve mentioned him here before by other names: my hunched-over friend, my friend whose parents were from Pernambuco, my toolmaker friend, my friend Suzy’s husband—they’re all one and the same. Right after his fall, when we spoke on the phone, he still remembered me perfectly, but a few minutes later he asked me, “Suzy, is that you, dear?” So I had to remind my friend who I was, and that Suzy was long gone. 

After he fell and broke his shoulder, we had to go a few weekends without our get-togethers, without our precious lunches. My friend’s children came to take care of him and so it wasn’t right for me to come around as often as I usually do. My friend didn’t ask me to do that—I mean, he didn’t ask me not to stop by. I just preferred it that way. His four children came to town—two by plane, as I understand it. They saw their father with a broken shoulder and couldn’t think of anything besides medications and physical therapy. They don’t even know how to cook, and so my friend, who’s so fond of food, spent weeks eating cheese sandwiches. They didn’t even get him fresh rolls from the bakery, just sliced bread, and they only sometimes added a slice of tomato. My friend told me this only after his children had left. He said I’d done the right thing by not visiting, or else I would have been forced to eat one of those sandwiches, too. 

My friend’s children always seem a lot nicer on the phone. They talk to me for a few minutes, call me Auntie, give me the latest on my friend’s health. But then they say they need to hang up, and poof, they’re gone. In the last few seconds of the call, I say I love each of them, I say I love them as always. They don’t say “I love you” back, but they mean no harm. “As always” covers a very long period of time—maybe what they’d need is a cutoff date, so they could reply without feeling embarrassed. 

They were very distressed by my friend’s fall, of course they were, scared, afraid. So if, on top of everything else, they found out that my friend and I had been having lunch together every weekend, and that we even had dessert, they wouldn’t just be distressed, they’d be furious. They’d remind their father he’s diabetic. The kids found the Pyrex dish I’d used to transport the flan for our last lunch in the kitchen cupboard, and asked my friend if that Pyrex dish belonged to me. My friend denied it, and to sound more convincing he said he and I barely see each other now, because I’m an old lady who has trouble getting around, who spends most of her time in bed—that’s what he said. I don’t blame my friend for lying to his children—after all, he knows very well what those children of his are like. But he didn’t have to throw me to the wolves like that, as if I don’t even put on perfume anymore.

Well, my friend called me a few days ago and said his children had left. Two by plane and two by car. He was silent on the phone for a while, searching for something to say, but then he remembered the reason for his call and said he had the food and the beer ready, waiting for me, so I didn’t have to worry about a thing. He said, “Don’t worry about a thing,” referring to the food and drink but also to the absence of his children. He would make his vegetable loaf, from that Turkish or Balinese recipe, I can’t remember which, a dish I really like because it has olives. We’d have time to talk about his shoulder, about my roof, and also about something he’d been thinking about, he told me. I didn’t ask what it was, I was afraid it had to do with his children, probably some complaint, etc. My friend said that what he had to tell me was important, and this puzzled me because, after all, he doesn’t usually refer to his children’s grievances that way, as important or unimportant. But perhaps it had nothing to do with that. I hurriedly agreed to my good friend’s invitation and tied a perfumed scarf around my neck.

It’s very different talking to my good friend at his house and not over the phone, as we’ve had to do for the past few weeks. When we have to talk on the phone, with the kids around, we’re a little more perfunctory. We talk about the simple things, about the present. If he hadn’t been so closely watched, my friend would have used the calls to complain about Raul, his son the newsagent, who announces all the news before my friend can read his morning paper. My friend takes his coffee and sits down at the kitchen table to read his nice newspaper, but before he’s even had a chance to skim the headlines Raul comes in and reports everything in that day’s edition, in detail. My friend gets so frustrated he doesn’t even finish his coffee. 

But my friend couldn’t tell me about any of this before now, because his kids were always around when I called. He’d just tell me about his shoulder, the pain, the drugs, and he’d ask me something about roof tiles, leaks. He always sounded very clearheaded and serious in those moments when he asked me about the leaks—he sounded like an expert. In the presence of his children that sort of thing happens—our friendship tenses up and we both sound very aboveboard and like experts on things that matter very little.

Everything is so different when my friend and I meet for lunch at his place. There we have hours and hours, and there’s no one watching over us. How I’d missed my good friend lately! I ended up watching a lot of movies, but it’s not the same thing. My friend always gives me a hug as soon as I get to his house. It’s so nice to hug someone who arrives at your home smelling good, with a beautiful blue scarf around their neck—who could ever say they don’t like that? My friend feels like smiling for no apparent reason. I really enjoy being at my friend’s house because he makes me feel at home. He cooks something from a country we’ve never been to and turns on the fan, and the breeze and the exotic smell of the food make us feel like we’re on a train trip. He calmly tells me about his vegetable garden and soon I’m so excited I can’t sleep when I get home. I’ve written about this before, a few pages back, about his huge cabbages, the beets.

After talking about his vegetables, we inevitably talk about the past. We don’t mean to, but before we know it, it’s happening. It’s like a piece of fruit on a tree ripening in reverse: we look at each other, my good friend and I, and then the fruit turns green again, back to its unripe state. Today was the first day he didn’t mistake me for Suzy since he took that fall. We spent time together, we ate, we talked normally without my friend ever thinking I was his wife. Anyway, in his house there’s always that picture of Suzy in the living room, right there on the little table next to the sofa. If my friend felt confused at any moment, he could look closely at that photograph to tell us apart. Suzy was as beautiful as the singers on the radio—she had magnificent curly hair, while I have no curls and I don’t look like I sing either. 

When I go to eat with my friend, I usually take a flan or a coconut custard for dessert, always with plums in syrup because my friend adores plums in syrup. It’s just that since his fall he’s forgotten about that adoration of his; he told me on the phone that he doesn’t remember liking plums that much. That put me in a real predicament. I used to use those plums to express my love for my friend, through the finest imported plums, which I’d take him on the weekends. Suddenly I had to find a replacement to show him my love. 

Just yesterday I went into town and had three flavors of strudel wrapped up at that bakery where they make Hungarian pastries. I’m not talking about the new bakery, the one with the annoying neon sign, but the old one on the street behind the market. I try not to stay inside that place for long, because the sweets attract mosquitoes and those mosquitoes are enough to drive you to violence. They still sell those same packets of shortbread there, but they seem to keep moving them higher and higher up, out of the customers’ reach. The lady at the counter told me that they’ve always been on the same shelf, at the same height, which only goes to show I’ve shrunk. I go to that bakery because their pastries are well known around town for being freshly made every morning. Just one look at a bag from that shop and presto, you know you’re getting something fresh. In the town where we live, some things might be old, like me and my good friend, but pastries can never be. Pastries have certain obligations and one of them is that they must be fresh, especially on weekends. I suspected some strudel might be a very effective way of saying “I love you” to my friend after his fall, maybe even better than the plums. Ultimately, I wasn’t wrong.

Today I left home early because I wanted to get to my friend’s house as soon as possible. I’d hardly slept. I was up at five in the morning, eating my toast and spritzing perfume on my handkerchief. Then I read a few pages of that book about the gardener—finally the winter chapter is ending, some pine trees have appeared now, pine trees and seriema birds, but I couldn’t read much, because I was anxious and that gardener is too calm, the pages move along and he just talks more and more slowly. I looked out the window, it was already pouring down rain, as expected. I put on my coat, grabbed my umbrella—the one I got for Christmas—and walked down the street, leaning into the wind. In this town, if you don’t do that, you’ll fall backward and you won’t be able to get back up, like a beetle. The only reason I didn’t go faster was because that might endanger the strudel, snug inside my tote bag. 

As soon as I got to his house, my good friend had to push hard on the kitchen door, which opens outward, so that I could finally enter, thrust inside by the howling wind. He hugged me tight, squishing the pastry a little in the bag, surely forgetting there might have been a custard or flan in there. I was soaking wet and my friend told me to hurry and take off my coat, so I wouldn’t catch a cold or worse. He helped me, pulling my coat up, freeing my head like a stuck cork. My friend’s house was warm and tidy, with the fresh scent of Pine-Sol and butter, which is his way of telling me that, for his part, our love still stands, even if he doesn’t remember it sometimes.

Roger the cat came to greet me, and when I peered into the living room, there was Suzy in her picture frame, next to a vase of yellow begonias. My friend told me he’d had to fight over those flowers at the market this morning, because they had been the only yellow ones. I walked over to say hello to Suzy and kissed her on the cheek through the glass. 

My good friend was preparing the food. He looked at his watch and opened two cans of beer. We usually start drinking at eleven. If it’s before that, we have coffee or juice or whatever’s in the fridge, to kill time. Whenever we start drinking our beers, well, what happens is we start talking about loneliness. About widowhood and loneliness, although these specific words are never said. These aren’t sad or melancholy conversations, no, no, you would be wrong to imagine that. On the contrary, we drink and rejoice, because at last there’s somebody who understands just how similar loneliness and contentment can become over time. My good friend and I have both been widowed for so long, we’ve figured out how to settle into our circumstances, we’ve learned how to do that. We reminisce about times with Suzy and times with my husband as if we were looking at a puzzle with some pieces that had gotten lost, God knows where. We ask each other, “Do you remember that, dear?” or “And that time at the lake, do you remember, sweetie?,” testing which of us is getting more senile with each encounter. 

My good friend and I take such good care of each other that of course it’s love. But we don’t use that word, because of the kids. Our friendship goes back to before our marriages, it’s always poured out of everything and embraced all the people we chose along the way. The more my friend and I loved our spouses, the more we loved each other, too, as though both loves heightened and nurtured each other, even if one of them had come first. Suzy and my husband, they looked at us from the outside and in their own way understood what was going on. They didn’t grumble, at least not all the time. They realized that the closeness my friend and I shared was sultry and velvety at times, but that it was also dull and tightly drawn, like a chicken wire fence.

We got married the same year, 1957. Suzy and I were the same age and had more or less the same body—she had slightly fuller breasts. We decided to save money by wearing the same dress, which was tied around the waist with a ribbon, and to change the look a little we bought different colored ribbons—mine was sky blue and Suzy’s pale yellow. I’d been trying to grow out my hair for a few months, at Suzy’s suggestion—she told me that with long hair I could pin a flower or a pretty barrette in it for the ceremony. I preferred short hair, a bob, but I went along with my friend, because Suzy knew how to primp and preen like a lady, how to make those magnificent curls, wear perfumed handkerchiefs, etc. I’d tell people, “Oh yeah, I’m growing my hair long for my wedding,” and Suzy would grin as she explained her plan to pin in a pretty barrette, a flower, or a paper swan.

Back then, my fiancé and my good friend were young men and looked a bit alike. Both of them had thick, shaggy beards, like most boys in those days. They were thin and about the same height. Sometimes people mixed them up, especially if their backs were turned. But my good friend carried a denim backpack wherever he went, and so the backpack made it clear who was who. That backpack smelled awful and so his back also smelled awful, but it was a smell you soon got used to and grew fond of.

When Suzy agreed to marry him, my good friend was ecstatic and said he’d wear a red suit to the church, an outfit he’d bought for cheap from a circus dealer. He’d often make up these stories and I’d confirm every detail, as if I myself had seen the suit, which wasn’t exactly red but burgundy, with a lighter-colored stripe down the side of the trousers. Suzy was nervous about the burgundy, and about the stripe thing, because she didn’t want a flamboyant groom, she wanted a groom like her cousin’s, that boy who’d fainted at the altar. In those days, fainting at the altar was seen as a good thing, a kind of sign that the groom was lovestruck in the proper way. In the end, my good friend entered the church wearing a light gray suit with a white satin flower on the lapel that I’d made as a gift. There’s a photo where he, Suzy, and I are at the altar; she’s adjusting the flower on his lapel and I’m holding the bouquet for her.

It’s almost hard to believe my good friend and I were ever that young—I mean, it’s hard to believe that that moment in time existed in this very same life, where we’re now old. When my friend feels confused, he asks me if there’s ever been a time when he didn’t have this pain in his shoulder, when his shoulder was just an ordinary, painless shoulder, and I show him the old photos where he has a denim backpack slung over his shoulder. He still remembers the backpack, the stink on his back. 

I got married just a few months after my good friend. Back then we all married young because we wanted to have sex—it was more respectable to have sex once you were married, in our day. Afterward, we rented neighboring houses for our families, and that’s why we lived as one tight-knit group of people, all mixed together. My good friend and Suzy started having kids in 1958 and didn’t stop until 1963. We watched their four kids grow up little by little, and we also watched each one move on to adulthood. To this day I call them “the kids” because it’s simpler that way. My friend’s children live far away nowadays, and they’re very nice, although in the past they’ve said very unpleasant and nasty things to me and my friend. The children said these things to both of us when Suzy was dying—they were sad and angry and all of it came bubbling to the bitter surface.

Suzy’s health spiraled quickly, and that’s when the kids first started to talk about my friendship with my friend. They’d say the word “friendship” and make little air quotes. They snarked about the closeness we shared when we took care of Suzy together, in the bed and in the bath, and when she was hospitalized. Suzy preferred when my friend and I bathed her, because, after all, we’d known her naked body for a long time, we’d seen that beloved body in all its phases. The children talked about us in secret, and we knew everything, because, after all, we’d been talking about them for even longer, since they were little, as all parents do. We were the parents, and we’d had a lot more practice whispering about things behind their backs.

Those kids saw Suzy dying and they wanted my friend and me to do something, to find a way to turn it all around, or else to die in her place. And if we couldn’t do that, well, they wanted us to grow pale, so pale we’d become transparent around their mother’s bed. They wanted to look at that bed and see only their convalescing mother, not their mother and our intimacy on top of her. My good friend and I would spoon Suzy, with her in the middle. We held hands, the three of us, and then we went to sleep. The children would tiptoe into the bedroom to take a closer look at those intertwined fingers, at our three hands joined at Suzy’s hip. They suspected that there, hidden between our fingers, were all sorts of old things, things they’d only now realized and that would become too visible if they didn’t do something to stop it. Suzy was about to leave us, but the two of us weren’t going anywhere. We’d both be alive a little longer and would still hold those things between our fingers. Didn’t we think we were betraying Suzy by staying alive?

Once, during the night, Raul snuck into the bedroom and read a few pages of my diary, which was on the dresser. He read almost the whole thing. In the morning, over coffee, he said I described too many mundane details and what those pages needed was a little action. It’d be better if I put in some more action, Raul told me, because then whoever read it might also have some fun, unwind, you know, and not just have to wade through all my innermost thoughts, one after another. I should think about it—that’s what Raul said. 

When we meet at his house for lunch, my good friend and I rarely talk about the things his children have accused us of, because it’s always better to forget their words so we can forgive them. We are infinitely willing to forgive those kids, especially when everything they say is veiled, or whispered. We don’t speak about it—that way we can keep our forgiveness from chafing.

I was thinking about all these things while setting the table for lunch at my friend’s house today. The kids had been with him there just a few days ago, had taken care of my good friend and talked to me on the phone like that, like I was their aunt. I felt a bit of disgust for those kids grow inside me as I spread out the tablecloth, but luckily my friend looked at me and all he saw was someone setting the table. The tablecloth is still the one we bought on the family trip to Campos do Jordão. Suzy bought one and I copied her and bought another just like it but a little smaller. Suzy knew how to take care of a home, and when she was with me she would often slow down, so I could imitate her without rushing. The sunflowers on the tablecloth are faded, but we have such vivid memories from when they were still new and bright yellow that it’s as if they hadn’t faded at all. The fabric has that candle burn from Raul’s twelfth birthday—that was such a nice birthday. My husband and I gave him a hooded sweatshirt and some stickers to put on his window.

My good friend was taking the vegetable loaf out of the oven when he looked at me and said my eyes were a lot paler today than they were the last time we saw each other. He told me that as we get old our eyes do lose their color, just like our hair, but that it’s supposed to be something gradual and almost imperceptible. “Your eyes are getting lighter in no time flat,” my friend told me, and held my face to get a closer look. He looked at me and I looked at him too. Then we sat down to eat the loaf, each with another can of beer. 

My good friend had made the loaf with plenty of cabbage because his garden won’t stop producing cabbages, he told me. He had also made a lettuce salad with a few small fuchsia-colored flowers. He’s been growing edible flowers since Suzy died, and now they’re at their peak, he said. The yellow ones bloom in May and the fuchsia ones in June, which is why my good friend spends at least two months of the year eating flowers every day. We’re from a time when people didn’t eat flowers, and now we’re in a time when people do eat flowers, and what a magnificent difference between those times.

Roger came to sit under the table to get the crumbs. He’s getting fatter, Roger the cat, because he’s been eating rice—I bet he’s been eating rice. The food was so steaming hot that we had to stop talking and eat in silence, both of us blowing on it. My friend and I get out of breath when we do this, and we have to focus on the task, like people at the bottom of a flight of stairs. 

It’s wonderful to be with my good friend because the silence is never uncomfortable or awkward, like it is when we’re around his children. The last time I was with the children, we had to constantly come up with new topics to talk about, tacking on anecdotes to keep silence from taking hold, because then they might look a little too hard at me and my friend. During those encounters, I’m the one who has to be a chatterbox, especially about my husband, because bringing up my husband always calms those kids down a little. They’re reassured by that kind of subject, because they knew my husband very well, of course—they even called him Uncle. Those children, they know how much I loved my husband and how pleasant and sweet-smelling the two of us were on weekends. Sometimes we even got them shaved ice from the newsstand, or yogurt. The children remember these stories and are reassured by them, and that’s always when I offer them some more grape juice. When the children are around, there’s always grape juice, and we all sit there licking our purple mustaches after each sip.

But today at my friend’s house the children were not with us, and so we felt relaxed enough to sit in silence, blowing on our food, chewing it slowly. My friend stuffed the lettuce leaves into his mouth whole, unceremoniously sticking out his tongue to capture an entire leaf. I could watch him without having to hide or look away. That was very nice. 

Soon after, I served the dessert on two small gold-edged plates. We both went into the living room and sat on the couch to eat beside Suzy. My friend’s eyes rolled back with every bite of strudel. He scarfed it down, barely taking a breath. He only paused briefly to praise how fresh and crisp the pastry was, and then suddenly he choked on a crumb. My friend started to cough and cough, harder and harder, startling me and forcing me to slap his back. The crumb came out only after several long seconds, and when that happened my friend was so upset he started to cry. I made him drink a glass of water and he told me he couldn’t imagine choking to death or dying from a fall, and yet all those things had been happening to him lately. He calmed down after a few minutes and then laid his head in my lap. He wiped the tears with his fingers and dried them on my slacks.

My friend was silent as he gulped his own saliva down, the way we often do after we choke. But after a while he was still swallowing, and then I realized he must actually be getting ready to tell me something—he was getting his tongue ready. My friend had his head in my lap, right in front of Suzy’s portrait, when he said, “Sweetie, I want you to come live here with me.” He said that and then he said, “It’s time,” and looked at me after he stopped looking at Suzy. It didn’t seem like he was still choking.

I started to tremble. I wasn’t wearing my coat. I clutched at my friend’s sofa so I’d stop trembling. Maybe my friend was losing his mind from all the painkillers. Maybe, with the fall, he’d forgotten what our love was, this thing we share but only at a distance. Surely he’d forgotten about his children. Or maybe he thought that now, more than anything, the two of us should be together, so I would be nearby for the next tumble or the next time he chokes—maybe he was being proactive. Suddenly I thought my friend, lying there on the sofa, might be right. I was trembling. There was a bite of strudel left on my plate. I looked at Suzy, at her magnificent head of curls. Suddenly between the three of us there was a feeling of shared love, and not that same far-off love, our usual one. Roger the cat came over.

I thought I was ready to say something. I was ready. I was about to say something when I put the last piece of strudel in my mouth. My friend had fallen asleep on my lap by this point, the way little boys fall asleep after crying a lot. His mouth was open and his breath smelled of beer and strudel. I sat there quietly, waiting for him to wake up from his nap, thinking I really was ready to say something. 

But a few minutes later, or maybe it was half an hour, the phone rang and my friend woke up with a start. One of his children was on the other end of the line. He wanted to know how his father’s day was going, whether he’d had one of those cheese sandwiches for lunch, the ones he and his siblings had left in the fridge. My good friend assured him that, yes, he’d eaten two of the sandwiches for lunch and was now taking a nap on the couch before he took his afternoon medicine. I got up to put the gold-edged plates in the sink and my good friend motioned for me not to worry about that. Then he turned to the window and continued talking to his son. Based on the conversation, I don’t think it was Raul; it was one of the boys who’d left by plane.

I looked outside and saw the afternoon had already turned to dusk. I waved at Suzy from afar, grabbed my umbrella, and pushed open the kitchen door into the wind. I left my friend talking at the window. I thought about walking home but ended up taking the bus because I don’t see very well at dusk, and I might have tripped. Luckily it didn’t take long. When I got back home, there was a message from my friend on the answering machine saying I’d left something in his kitchen, my coat. It still wasn’t completely dry. He’d keep the coat at his house, my friend said in the message, and I could pick it up later, whenever I liked, or at our next lunch. It’s my best coat.

It is now nine thirty at night. I still need to wash my feet and take those drops that help me sleep properly. Thirty weeks exactly—that’s how long it’s been since the roof started leaking. I’m jotting that down here, so I won’t forget how long I’ve been waiting for those tiles. I tend to forget how long I’ve been waiting for things after a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow morning I’m going to call that young man at the store and this time he’ll have to give me an answer. He’ll see. His mother was going to the movies with her new boyfriend this weekend, he told me; I’ll finally find out what the film was. 

 


HOME PAGE IMAGE FROM AMY SILLMAN AND TOM MCGRATH, a Portfolio by DAVID SALLE IN ISSUE NO. 195 (WINTER 2010).