It was hard to find them all. Sandra furrowed her brow when she opened the door, the woman she had become was not half as lovely as the girl she had once been. I had to tell her who I was, but even so I’m not sure she recognized me. We chatted a little before I told her why I had come. I’ve come for my self-esteem. Sandra had taken it from me the day I declared myself to her, the girl of my dreams, in one of those idiotic ‘be-my-girlfriend’ pleas kids make. She didn’t answer yes or no, but I saw her kissing my best friend later that very same day. Contrary to my expectations, she invited me in and told me to wait in the sitting room. She came back with an old box, the kind left over from wedding presents. I found mine with ease, like one drop of mercury finds another, and shoved it into the black garbage bag I had in my hand. Cida was fat. Her eyes revealed a genuine happiness at seeing me again. I was what, thirteen? She must have been 17. She used to work in my grandmother’s house, but now she was working for my rich aunt. Her husband was the driver and they had two children that spent all day at the crèche. The first time I saw her naked was while spying through the window as she took a bath. Then one day she caught me at it, but instead of getting mad, she invited me back the following day, when my grandmother would be away. I went back. I went back over and over. We spoke a while, it had been so long since I last called round, she asked me in, said she could make me a sandwich; my aunt would only be back late in the afternoon. It’s you I’m here to speak to, I’ve come to get my innocence back. Cida laughed, she had a laugh no one could resist. What innocence? You never had any. Registering the serious look on my face, she asked me to wait and headed for her room, chuckling to herself and shaking her head. Is this it?, she asked, still laughing. That’s it, I said, slipping it into the bag. I declined the sandwich, but sure, I’d call by more often. Just when you think you’ve seen it all!, I heard her say, as she closed the gate. Things went exactly as expected with Mila, her humor hadn’t changed, or had perhaps worsened with the pregnancy announced by her belly. All we’d had was some occasional necking at parties, when she couldn’t find anyone less shy. But later, when we met, it was all verbal aggression. What? You’ve come here looking for your happiness? You’re the same waste of space as ever, well you can take your happiness and shove it…In the bag, you shrew! I yelled. She took a fright, I don’t think she thought I was capable of shouting. From Cristina I reclaimed my teenage dreams, of the great man I would become, of all that I’d go on to achieve, of the better world we’d be living in. She caught me by complete surprise when she asked for hers in return. They’d been with me all this time. I never even knew. Márcia, who I never dated or had anything with, was surprised to see me, she gave me such a warm hug I was embarrassed to ask her for my sorrows back, which she’d relieved me of so gently. It was important that I got them back. At the club, I couldn’t find Bianca or Barbara, if those were really their names, but I spent the night with Elisângela, and in the morning she gave me a certain peace of spirit, which I shoved in the bag. She charged double for that. It was Andréia who gave me my hands back, though I still have hers, stowed safely away. My head had gone to another Cristina. We’d never even spoken, she was two years ahead of me at university. I could always make the guys lose their heads, she said, smiling. To my surprise, she knew my name and jokingly lamented that I had never called to ask her out. There were far fewer heads in there than I had imagined. My torso had gone to another, much younger Andréia, who loved pulling my chest hair as she lay naked on top of me. It wasn’t easy facing Isabel. She’d accumulated so much over the 10 years we were together. Arms, legs, my desire to be a father, all my certainties, the football games with friends, the trips to Nepal and China I never got to take, the record store I never opened. You know you left it all here because you wanted to, I never asked for anything. She was right, as always, she was right. You’re pregnant? She was – pregnant, married and happy. I said I was pleased for her. And I genuinely was.
Right then, everything you asked for. Marta blurted a childish laugh, opened the bag and started reassembling me piece by piece, examining each part like an oncologist would a cancerous cell. Sometimes she would stop and clap her hands in delight, other times she’d spend long minutes gazing upon something. She wasn’t too surprised when she realized I was leaving. Bags at the ready – my records, my books, my camera. She should have known that she would lose me the very moment she opened up the sack. And she probably didn’t even notice that my gaze was not in there. It was in every corner, every desire, each fear, in each shared silence. I walked into the elevator lamenting not having left her anything, despite everything she had taken from me, and that I’d let her take. Maybe someday she would realize that her Lego-man was blind. Maybe she would put everything back in the bag, and put the bag in the trash, its rightful place. Maybe, for the first time, she’d miss me. Maybe she’d phone.
Or maybe not.
(Translated from the original Portuguese by Anthony Doyle.)
The girl next door died, just last night. They say she chain-smoked, two packs a day, some say four. But she didn’t die from cancer, though if she were still alive, maybe cancer would have seen her off in a few years’ time, and she’d be in one of those photos stamped on the backs of cigarette packs – the very picture of suffering, all wasted away, tubes stuck up her nose. Between one greeting and another, the doorman says that she drank a lot, that every week he had to cart away the load of empty bottles she’d leave outside her service door. But she didn’t die from sclerosis, though she might well have done eventually, given the life she led. She had a lot of boyfriends, that girl next door. There’s a new one every week, they said round the building, some said two. I would have liked to have a go myself but never did, she never paid me much attention during our elevator encounters. Though once she did offer me a piece of chocolate she was eating – And such junk she used to eat too, that girl! says my neighbor, shaking her head. I said no thanks and the girl next door just shrugged her shoulders. That was the last thing she ever offered me, I never got so much as a half-glance from her again. But she didn’t die from AIDS either, the girl next door. If she’d had AIDS, it would have come up at the residents’ meeting, just like the bikinis she used to wear, the music she’d have blasting away in her car and all those parties we were never invited to. Her guests were always the stubbly type with earrings; skinny, pale women with bags under their eyes, nose piercings and an insolent glare. I sometimes heard screams, I don’t know whether of pleasure or pain. But she didn’t die from either pleasure or pain, that girl next door, nor was it suicide or murder. She didn’t die in her sleep either, nor was she electrocuted in the bath. And, as far as I know, it wasn’t from an overdose, nor anorexia or old age – she was too young for that, the girl next door.
She died, and that was it. Just like that, without explanation, just like she lived.
Peaceful building, tranquil slumber.
And a slightly duller world, without the girl next door.
(Translated from the original Portuguese by Anthony Doyle.)
Carlos Eduardo de Magalhães was a resident at Sangam House in January 2010. These stories have appeared in Other People: The Sangam House Reader vol. 1.This entry was posted in Reader. Bookmark the permalink.
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