Light had a soothing effect on her. Seated at her grandmother’s porch, Lara contemplated little bright particles revolving around a light bulb. Their magical dance cleared her head for a while. The wind blew softly. She hid her hands underneath the red sweater’s sleeves. Cicadas played their night tune. Magic could be produced so easily that she began to wonder why sorrow sprung everywhere, even inside of her.
The cellphone, placed right beside her thin body, interrupted contemplation. It rang and vibrated incessantly, its blue light flashing. She checked the screen. Once again it was Ricardo. She pretended not to see or hear anything but the water dripping from the leaves, a reminder of the afternoon storm. The phone stopped. Once again there was loneliness, despite the distant sound of chatting inside the house. Probably another holiday argument between her grandmother and mother to decide who should orchestrate Christmas Eve dinner; or maybe speculation about how the family's 22-year old, responsible daughter had just quit her job at the law firm with immediate effect.
The phone came back to life. Ricardo had sent a text message. She hesitated, but eventually reached for the device. “We need to talk. Please call me.” The white wooden bench and the countryside symphony didn’t feel relaxing anymore. She felt the chilly mountain weather freezing her body. Her breath grew heavy. Thoughts were racing cars speeding loudly. She got up and placed the phone inside her jeans’ back pocket. Running faster than the flashes of his face popping into her head could do some good. She rushed to the gates and lost her body to the movement of arms and legs as if she had dozens of them. It had been a long time since she felt solid. She remembered when she and her friend Miguel were young, inseparable, and liked to think of themselves as other people’s hallucination, two concepts floating around. Her lungs, though, felt very real now. The daily pack of cigarettes too. She stalled, breathing heavily. It took her a minute to regain her strength. All around her was the orange light from the lampposts illuminating flying bugs and trashcans filled with garbage. The usual bum played his guitar to no audience. A 1970s blue Beetle was parked close to the spot where she’d stopped. It was December again. She had lacked excuses not to come home – there was no internship, nothing urgent to get done in São Paulo.
Two days to Christmas. She felt empty. Ricardo, her former boss, had happened a year earlier. It had begun at a staff party. Even though she already felt attracted to him, a 35-year old, a move was beyond her imagination. He had been married for five years and had a daughter of three. Yet, he smiled at her often during the party. “You seemed so gloomy when you started working here, Lara,” he said between sips of scotch. The internship at the office had started one month after Miguel left São Paulo without even saying goodbye. He quit his major in Economics and their longtime friendship recklessly. “Figuring things out”, she replied casually.
They rode the lift together. She was tipsy and laughed at how he found some economics expressions funny. “Sit on their wallets is my favourite. I kind of picture people doing it literally and some spectral hand trying to reach their pockets.” It was raining heavily when they got to the lobby. Lara said she would cab home. “Absolutely not. I’m driving you. Come on!”. She tried to object, but it was useless. They listened to some Dave Matthews Band songs. Ricardo had tanned skin and eyes like coal. His white shirt covered the kind of broad shoulders she loved in men. He noticed she was looking. Smiled. He pulled over in front of her building. There was a big Santa Claus on the lawn. Flickering, multicoloured lights decorated most of the flats’ balconies. She unbuckled the seat belt and started to thank him for the ride. He interrupted, “I love the way you always try hide your smile. Your hair falls on your face … like brown cascades.” She was quiet, but it was like a bolt from the sky had hit her. He slid his right hand over her tights. With the other he grabbed her hair. Before they kissed, she could see colorful raindrops ornamenting the car window.
The memory of the first time they touched eased her sorrow for a while. But her eyes blurred at the sight of that street. She put herself in motion again, walking toward Maple Road. On her left, on the opposite sidewalk, she could see the cinema had shut down. It used to be a rosy building, the front door flanked by two large windows and the roof supported by four stone columns. When she was a kid, it had reminded her of luminous Greek constructions she saw on TV, temples standing on hills, blessed with the Mediterranean sun. Vandalised walls, fading paint and shattered windows covered with green placards had replaced the cinema’s former beauty. Rumour had it that the spot was about to be torn down and be replaced by a convention centre. An Italian word popped into her head. It was a word she once asked her grandmother to translate. Dimenticare – to forget. The word pretty much reflected all of her family's need, especially her grandmother’s. She fled Naples at the age of five; right after her communist, older brother was murdered by the fascist regime. Her parents had feared persecution. She had lived in the small Brazilian town since the fifties. Dimenticare. It could be the name of a god.
Lara turned the corner and entered Maple Road. All the shops were closed. Maple trees had once spanned the road, providing shade on hot summer afternoons. They were not as numerous anymore. Bar owners cut them down and replaced with tables and chairs. Condos rose here and there. Parking lots seemed to be more important than nature. The town had always been a tourist spot, but in two decades it had been turned into a giant display. The Swiss-looking constructions – buildings with pointy towers – were meant to give tourists a feel of Europe. Visitors came because magazines told them to. Old sites were abandoned in favour of progress. And it would go on until the street's name would reflect only an absence and locals would be empty jars waiting for someone to pour identity into them.
She kept strolling. The light at Tia's bar was on, one table occupied. From where she was standing, she recognised Miguel’s big hands holding a book, his blond fringe hiding blue eyes, the crooked nose and square, manly chin. He was the only person on the planet who could persuade a bar owner to keep the house open until he was finished with his reading. She crossed the street like an overwhelmed bug, lured to a dangerous flame. He seemed not to notice Lara’s approach. She touched his shoulder and felt him start. He greeted her with a faint smile.
"Well, why don’t you sit down?" he pointed to a chair.
She sat. It struck her she’d left the house without any money. He had put his book aside – a book with a white-bearded man on the cover. She looked at it for a few seconds trying to assess who that was.
His voice gently intervened, "It’s Whitman."
"Oh." She shifted her eyes from the cover to Miguel’s red face.
"Walt Whitman. Have you heard of him?"
"No, not really."
Miguel had a professorial way of bringing things up. She always had the bittersweet feeling of being a pupil to him. "So, what about him?"
"There’s this verse I like." He grabbed the book and opened it at a marked page. "It goes: ‘The universe as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.’" He stared at the book for a while longer as if he were trying to extract something from the passage.
"Miguel, is everything ok?"
"Yeah," he sighed, "it’s just this weird thing about roads …"
"Aren’t we all lost?!"
"Well, I’m looking at you after a year and a half …"
"That’s geography. Time and space crap. I’m talking about something else."
His glare said it all: they wouldn’t be discussing his life choices. That conclusion broke her heart. They used to be each other’s witnesses. She pulled herself together and went on, "What are you doing now?
"Not much. Just hanging around my parent’s house. Dropping some inglorious lines into blank sheets," he started to stamp his foot on the ground.
"Nice. Have you been here this entire time? Since you …"
"You know," he interrupted her, "I read in the paper there have been some defaults in the US. Unemployment is soaring, people are not paying their mortgages … it’s likely to spread."
The turn in the conversation didn’t surprise her. She smirked. "We have project finance operation clients at the law firm I work … used to work for," she noticed the lapse and paused for a couple of seconds. "I mean, the contracts are insanely complex. If things go bad up there, financiers will sit on their wallets in no time."
Ricardo’s face emerged, the way he grinned when she came into his office, how they spent time together during weekend getaways disguised as business trips, not worried about family or co-workers. Everything was easily solved with a soft kiss.
Miguel kept on talking. "America is the pivot economy. Contagion is the only certainty in such a deregulated world," he slid his fingers across his hair. It took his fringe only a couple of seconds to find its way back to his forehead.
He seemed like himself again, discussing his favourite topic, but the reasoning lacked the passion – his fist banging on the table – of his teenage dream to be elected president, save the country from ignorance and middle-class blundering. He was aloof, static. She remembered how hurt she had felt when he disappeared. He never sent an e-mail to explain what happened, like she was some disposable acquaintance. She had even called his parents' house, back in their hometown. He had been away, somewhere in Minas Gerais. "Perhaps hiding near baroque churches," his jaded mother suggested.
Miguel was about to say something when the waiter approached and handed him the check. It was around 10:30 pm and it was clear that the favourite customer would not persuade the owner, standing near the cash register, to keep the house open for another minute.
"Well, it looks like we gotta go. You didn’t even have time to drink anything." He went to pay his bill and began to exchange some words with the owner, a fat man wearing a green polo shirt with sweat stains in the armpits. There was a stench of garlic mixed with cleaning agents coming from the bar. Lara closed her eyes. “There’s a black cloud over this town, Lara,” she could hear her mother saying. She had started to say that after Lara’s grandfather died, thirty years before. She had sought spiritual counselling from a psychic who, supposedly, could see auras and spirits.
The family had said that her grandfather died in a car crash. Her grandmother stripped the house of all memories of him – clothes, pictures, objects – and found a new husband whom Lara and her five cousins called grandpa. Her mother said only that he had been a doctor who worked at one of the city’s sanatoriums, that he had died when she was 16 – “Some time in October, Lara. Why is that even important?” – and that his name was Antonio Davanti.
She opened her eyes and saw Miguel heading back to the table. "So, where do you feel like going?" he seemed cheerful.
"Oh, I guess I should go home. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving. They’ll be worried …"
"Come on, where do you feel like going?" his eyes had changed. His glance seemed to pull her from the chair.
"I don’t know." Lara stood up. "Let’s just walk around a little, I guess."
They walked down the street in silence. A car’s engine whined to life. Dogs barked in the distance. Everything stressed her sense of isolation. She almost told him she didn’t want to go to his house, after all. Miguel was silent, looking ahead like she didn’t even exist. She felt his hand close over hers. She remembered when they were 11 and Lara’s incessant quest to find out what had happened to her grandfather came to an end. Miguel had the idea. They would talk to his journalist uncle and search the local newspaper’s archive. Lara’s mother had turned sixteen in 1977. They followed the clues and searched throughout that month. Lara was the one to find the news, sometime around October 20th. There was no picture, just a box. “Doctor and woman found dead in the woods. Husband is number one suspect.” She kept reading. “The bodies of Doctor Antonio Davanti (41) and Sofia Lebedeva (39) were found near the waterfall three days after their disappearance. Both were naked. Doctor Davanti was shot once in the head; Mrs. Lebedeva twice, near the abdominal area and in the heart. Her husband, shop owner Dimitri Lebedev, has not been located. Police officials have evidence that the latter is involved in the killings.” It was a sudden realisation: the black cloud had engulfed her too.
She heard high-heeled boots on the opposite sidewalk. Three teenage girls were giggling as they looked at a cell phone screen. Miguel moved his hand from hers to reach for a cigarette in his pocket. She thought again of going back. But all she did was accept a smoke and get a little dizzy after the first puff. Ricardo hated cigarettes. She avoided them during the time they were together. When things started to go bad and her thoughts were constantly divided between scenarios, anxiety dragged her back to her cigarette routine. She had two pictures in her head. In one of them Ricardo got a divorce, but she lacked the courage to break the news to the family. In the other, she was his favourite pastime.
They were near Miguel’s house when he finally spoke. "You said you were working at a law firm, right?"
"Yeah," she heisted for a second not sure of what to say. "I quit a week ago. I’ll just focus on my thesis now."
"What are your plans for the thesis?" and for the first time he seemed interested in her.
"Well, I was thinking about analysing project finance operations in Brazil. All these huge infrastructure endeavors throughout the country …"
"Cool. Don’t know how that works legally speaking, but as far as economics are concerned, you dealing with tons of risks, any instability could jeopardise cash flows in the long run."
"Yeah, it’s a very uneven operation. And complex too. I mean the balance between sponsors and financier is hard to reach …"
Lara felt a heavy raindrop fall on her head. Others followed. The wind blew strongly. Miguel took her hand and urged her to run. They crossed the small bridge over the creek. She heard their feet bagging on the wood and started to laugh. Miguel looked at her and grinned. They ran, stepping in puddles, and holding hands. They got to his house and as Miguel was opening the gate, Lara looked up and contemplated the two giant araucarias beside the entrance spreading their muscular branches like two giant guards. The lights along the path were on. She could see the house’s wooden façade and the big window along its entire length.
"Come on! Jesus, we’re soaked" Miguel said, running to the door.
In the house she took off her wet sweater. Miguel turned on the lights. Very little had change since the last time she’d been there. The red sofa covered by colourful cushions, a spot of playfulness amidst the dark wooden furniture. The strong smell of cigarettes, the grey and brown abstract painting above the couch. “It’s free-fall technique. My dad likes these things,” she recalled him saying.
"I’ll get us towels. It’s a shame that water is the only thing coming from the sky lately," he said, taking off shirt.
Lara remembered her phone in her back pocket and was relieved to see that it was still working. She checked the time. 11.15 pm. Miguel came back and handed her a white towel, a pullover and trousers.
"We must have woken your parents." She took her wet t-shirt off and dried her body.
"Oh, they’re not here. They’re having a kind of second honeymoon, travelling around the northeast" Miguel wrapped himself in a blue towel and headed to the minibar near the hallway.
"Cool. What cities will they be visiting?"
"I don’t know, haven’t asked about the whole plan … Do you feel like a glass of Jack?" He looked at her as she pulled his trousers on.
"Sure, thanks. What are your plans for Christmas?"
"Reading and sleeping mostly."
Miguel was pouring bourbon into a glass. He looked at her with a puzzled face. "Yes, alone. What’s wrong with that? Ok, here’s your Jack, madame."
She grabbed the glass and sat on the couch. Miguel took a seat on the armchair across the room. He placed his bare feet on the wooden table and looked up at the ceiling for a few seconds, spinning the bourbon in the glass. Suddenly, he took his feet off the table and straightened his back. His eyes were fixed on Lara. "You know ... the day before I left São Paulo I went to a job interview at a bank. As the guy moved his mouth to explain what the internship was about and how they liked my CV, I felt hopelessly empty, like everything I have ever dreamed or stood for had no value anymore." Miguel frowned.
In the dark room Lara could not see his eyes. She got off the couch and sat on the table near him. She took his hand and kissed it lightly. His face softened.
"At first I thought you had ailed on me. But I have been through so much myself ..." her voice faded. She took a deep breath. "I figure that there are things we just can’t rationalise."
Miguel touched her forehead with his lips and then moved away from her, placing his glass on the chair arm.
Lara reached for her glass and took a sip. She decided it was about time to disclose what had been oppressing her for over a year. "I left the office a week ago because I was having an affair with Ricardo, my boss. My married boss. I was … I think I still am in love with him. But sometimes the fact that he’s married gets to me. At times it seems like he’ll never leave his wife. And sometimes I’m afraid he will decide to do so. How would I explain this to my family?"
Miguel looked at her. He put his hand on her shoulder and pressed it gently. "I know you feel strongly about what happened to your family. But, trust me, that’s not your story."
Lara contemplated the golden liquid in her glass.
"We’ re just people, Lara. Bodies filled with random thoughts and conflicted emotions."
She swallowed the bourbon, feeling warm for the first time in hours. Miguel’s musk scent was stronger than she had remembered. She put the glass down and held his hand. It occurred to her that Miguel could be right, that she was worried about things that didn’t concern her. But carpe diem was hard, especially for someone used to scenarios. "The more I think about it, the less I know what to do. And he keeps texting me …"
"Follow your gut. You have always been good at that."
"But what about the consequences? There will be harm ...," the words left her mouth as a moan.
"Lara, God is dead. And so is the past. Picture the markets and all those beasts hungry for an edge. The economical man is a joke! You’re not going to save anyone with righteousness. What you do with your love right now is more important than contracts or cash flows."
She was overwhelmed by his words. It struck her that Miguel was gravitating around another axis, strolling on a mental road with a different landscape.
Her cellphone vibrated on the table. It was her mother. She looked outside and saw rain falling under the lamp poles. She dismissed the call and got up. "I have to go now, but thank you for everything." She hugged him. His hair was still wet.
"I’ll walk you home."
"No, no, it’s fine. I’ll get there safe and sound." She held his arm and stared at him.
Miguel opened gate. She could feel a thin layer of water on her face. They kissed goodbye and Lara said, "I’ll come by tomorrow to return your clothes. Thanks. You know, I was wondering … What are your passions, Miguel?"
He smiled and started buttoning the yellow coat he had on. "Well, I just cultivate my garden and accept what I’m offered. That’s how it works for me now."
She walked some metres and stopped on the bridge. The stream was running smoothly underneath her. She saw silver light on the dark water. She thought it was the moon but it was just the reflection of a streetlamp. She reached for the phone and reread Ricardo’s message. 12:02 pm. “Call you in the morning. Love, Lara.” She pushed send.