Logo

There is No More Painful Longing

 


 

There is No More Painful Longing

 

There is no more painful longing than the longing for things that never were!

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

 

Eva turns away from the mirror to ask me how she looks.

She’s displaying the sartorial semiotics of conceit and high social station. Or at least what used to pass for social position decades ago, before we left the country for California. She looks almost imperious in a well-tailored dark-blue dress with small white polka dots, patent leather shoes with heels high enough to indicate leisure, yet short enough to be practical. Her stockings are thin, and allow through a suggestion of freckles on the pale skin of her legs. Everything in her outfit matches.

She becomes irritated when I tell her that she looks lovely. This is hardly the occasion to look lovely, she tells me. These are dear friends. We haven’t met in years. They are good people. She continues, and looks at me before sending her customary barb, you don’t know these things.

In Eva’s poorly coded syntax good people and dear friends refer to people of a higher social standing. People whose behavior I must observe and copy. That last particle, you don’t know these things, is an expression of despair, a confirmation of my inability to elevate myself to the exalted heights of her family.

Thank you for keeping me company this evening, I can guess that you are still shaken, she tells me.

My father was buried yesterday, he died two days before that, and we came to the old country to be at his funeral, so, no, I was not expecting this social call with your friends. I tell her. We would not have come here if it weren’t for that. But I am glad I can meet some of your old friends.

She holds my hand, and whispers a thank you, before turning back to the mirror

Scarf or pearls? She asks me.

I shrug. She frowns, and then raises an eyebrow in reproach.

The pearls are less casual than the scarf, but not too formal for a dinner with friends. I tell her.

She puts on the pearl necklace, turns to the mirror again and purrs. I want to think that she purrs, since she seems so pleased with herself. She puts on a jacket in a faint shade of grey, and beckons me to leave.

At the hotel lobby we check with the concierge that there are no messages canceling our dinner. I tip the porter on the way out. His face splits in a wide smile at the outsize amount in his hand. We’re rich tonight, I tell him once Eva is out of earshot.

Tidying herself on the car seat, Eva is giddy.

Punch in the address in the GPS, will you? She tells me.

You’ve never been to Torres, she adds.

Eva’s family used to live close to this hotel. Her friends’ family lived a few doors down the street when this was the toniest part of town. Over the years the city was overrun by tourism, the real estate prices ballooned, and most of the residents sold their homes and left for Torres, a small town north of the city.

Our car starts at the first try, and I steer us north through the ebbing rush-hour traffic.

This morning I rented a model from the 80s that smells of wax, sage, and urinal cakes. Rent us a proper car. Eva demanded of me. A Mercedes. Yes, a Mercedes is a proper car. We need an older model, something ten years old or so. She specifies. That is a car that spells old money. We cannot show up with this, told me Eva, as she pointed in the vague direction where of our sensible Japanese rental.

It’s a rental, I told her. A car is a car.

A tiny Japanese rental is entirely out of place in Torres. Eva told me, irritated at my casual approach to social image.

Now we leave town. The highway leading North is wide, modern, well paved and safe. It stands in stark contrast with the road that it replaces: a two lane, potholed artery that could barely drain the northbound traffic. The Mercedes engine roars with a raspy gargle as I hit the gas, and engage the higher gears. The car frame rattles at higher speeds. Newer cars zip by us effortlessly. I long for our Japanese rental.

Would you remind me again who are these friends of yours, I ask her?

We were neighbors, and grew up together. Their parents are from old families. Nobility. She tells me in a wistful tone. Our families met again when we went to São Paulo. We played together often when we lived there, we went to middle school together, we were close, you see. Our families moved in the same social circle, she says, as if she were scooping memories from the deepest hollows of her past.

Those were turbulent times, times of transition. I remember the years after the old regime fell, I say.

In fact, my memory of those days includes a sense of transition, albeit without turbulence. I remember that the old regime was replaced by a left-leaning one, and that the kids that were chauffeured to our school quit showing up for class, their families left the country in fear of a red wave that never came. Families like mine, people of no history or description, were suddenly given opportunities that had been absent in the old regime.

Eva’s friends were admired and envied, they were the girls with whom everyone wanted to be seen. We were good friends, tells me Eva.

What Eva doesn’t tell me, but I’ve been able to piece together from her family and some of friends, is that, wherever they went, these exiles articulated all their petty prejudices, their incurious arrogance, and obscure social vices into a semblance of their former social life, complete with its rituals of privilege, cliques, veiled language, and all they could muster, but that excluded the oi polloi

Through their exile, they waited for the country to allow them back, after which they transplanted their calcified social habits back to the mainland. But the country had moved on, and they struggled to rebuild an elite for themselves. They were disoriented in the new social order, and those unable to buy their way into the new higher strata, remained disoriented and sullen. Eva’s family fell into this latter group.

Eva and I met a year after her family returned from South America. We met at university, through friends, then at a party or another, and we clung to each other as if that would reveal a true north for our lives. We thought it did, and married. Soon after, we left for California to complete our studies. So soon, in fact, that we never had time to survey the gap between us, a gap made more evident as we clung together again in an effort to build a life in a foreign land. Our decades together are a testament to the success of inertia in its most empirical sense.

The car grinds through the lower gears as I downshift. We are leaving the highway and the roads are now narrow, pot-holed, flanked by tall and decrepit masonry walls. Grass grows on the drainage ditches with unabashed enthusiasm.

The occasional hilltop affords us a view of the forms behind the walls, mostly fallow ground overtaken here and there by all manner of bush, tussocks of grass, and bramble. In the distance we glimpse isolated manorial houses, surrounded by graveled pavement and haphazard gardening, some have a pool, most have a German-brand car parked on gravel pads.

Eva is still going on about her relationship with these friends of hers. Her short silences and the exacting detail of her descriptions suggest that her memories are tainted by time, distance and intent. She has not seen these friends for decades. Decades through which her friends’ lives unfolded in a society that is no longer segmented in the same rigid fashion as when we left, and in which the signs of wealth and power are no longer interpreted in the same old way. I cannot divine her intent, other than to think that Eva believes that social position can be had by osmosis, that she can recapture a higher social status by mere exposure to these friends.

I am sure they were surprised when you contacted them, I ask her.

It was funny, they played this little game of pretending not to remember me, she tells me. It’s natural after all these years, but we rattled off a few names, dates, places, and they remembered everything. She tells me.

Why meet after all these years, I ask? It’s interesting that they didn’t remember you any longer.

Eva is silent, staring at the potholes in front of us.

I guess that I want to reconnect with a period of my life when all was tidy, everything and everyone had its place, she answers.

A time when you were happy, I venture, and regret it immediately, we have never felt happy together. I know it, she knows it.

Eva ignores my comment. I was popular, we had money, and not a care in the world. The future was rife with promise, and all this is quite important to a girl entering her teenage years. She tells me.

The sun is setting behind us, and dusk begins erasing all detail from the world.

We are getting close to the restaurant. I tell Eva. She is silent, and stares straight ahead into the darkness beyond the reach of our headlights.

The walls that flank the road have given way to white-washed village houses. I feel relief at the waning claustrophobia caused by the walls. The pavement is cobbled, noisy. I drive even slower through a small village square. The anemic street lights suggest I take the exit to the left. It is narrow, flanked by immaculate white walls. We come to a large square that doubles as an impromptu parking lot. I park close to the roadway. Our Mercedes is surrounded by sensible, economical cars. Eva does not see the contrast, she is expectant, oblivious to the cold, damp air of the night.

The restaurant is in an old oil press with an open kitchen occupying its furthest wall. The décor has transitioned the place from a real agricultural facility to the nouveau riche notion of rusticity.

Eva’s friend sits at a table at the far end of the room. She stops chewing on a bread crust to look up at us in an indifferent greeting. Eva bows at the waist to kiss he friend’s cheek, I offer a deliberately flaccid handshake. She hesitates with her response.

My husband, Eva explains as her friend looks me up and down. I expect her eyebrow to curl with curiosity, but she offers a smile instead. Her white shirt is clean, starched stiff, and well worn. Its angles and creases accentuate her epicene features. She’s wearing inch-long gold filigree earrings that catch her blond highlights. I notice her stunted but manicured fingernails as she reaches for another piece of bread crust. She’s understated whereas Eva captures the attention of the room.

Your husband? Your sister? Asks Eva.

He’s busy, offered the friend with no attempt at explanation. My sister will join us later, she added, before continuing to chew on her crusts.

 Brisket. We must have the brisket. Says Eva’s friend without looking at us or at the menu. Eva glances at me, smiles and agrees with her friend. I order bacalhau.

We place our order, and I request a bottle of red wine before they have time to consult the wine list.

And then I become invisible for the first few minutes of their conversation. In fact, this conversation soon turns into little more than two parallel soliloquies tethered by a common timeline, and by incidental facts.

I learn that Eva’s friend’s father was some sort of industrialist, Eva’s was an engineer, but it remains unclear whether the two ever worked together. Eva says that they did, her friend claims not to know if they did. I know that Eva’s father worked in the factory that her friend’s father owned.

Eva is unable to remember their other friends with clarity, and her friend cannot remember what friends they had in common. They’re in agreement about having attended the same elementary and middle schools, of having been in the same classes, but there stops the agreement since Eva’s memory has captured events of which her friend has no recollection.

The expat community was larger than what we thought at first. Many people moved in the same circles without even realizing it, or without keeping a clear memory of it. Offered Eva by way of a vague explanation.

Eva’s friend’s sister arrives at the same time as our food. She is taller than her sister, sports earrings of the same pattern as her sister’s. Her figure is ill contained in a shirt and a blue blazer one size too small, she’s manicured, and apologizes for her husband not being able to join us, throws her car keys on the edge of the table, and sits down without bothering to greet us more formally.

She remains silent as Eva and her sister appraise her of the contents of their attempted conversation.

Our food arrives, the portions are exuberant. My bacalhau, used to be common people fare, unsophisticated, unpromising and consistent.

The brisket looks expensive, surrounded by fried potatoes and unrecognizable greens.

The sister takes some brisket and fries from the tray, and begins chewing it as Eva and friend continue to try and make their memories match.

Do you remember our house? Our backyard with the tall mango trees, and the limes that grew out of the stunted bushes? Asked Eva. Her friend stared at her for two seconds, shrugged and went back to carving a piece of brisket.

We used to play hide-and-seek, and also catch. We always played mid-afternoon when everyone else was sheltering from the heat. Remember? Continued Eva.

Her friend picks up a fry and bites into it.

I remember playing in a shaded garden when we lived in São Paulo, adds the sister, I don’t know if it was your house. I remember many kids, and having iced tea at the end of the day, as our play winded down, and before we headed home.

It was not Eva’s home, that was at the St. Claire’s. Corrects Eva’s friend. She turns to Eva and asks her if she remembers playing with the St. Claires.

Eva becomes flushed, her cheeks glow in the yellow light of the room. She reaches for her glass and takes a sip of wine. I remember them. We did not play much together. She answers.

We lost track of them too. They went to Switzerland, and I believe that they still live there. We need to get in touch with them, of course. Says Eva’s friend. The father opened some financial firm there. That was his métier all along.

Our school was fun. I remember our teachers and the other kids. Says Eva to reorient the conversation to its original course.

Her friend is chewing through the last piece of bread crust, and chases it with the remnant of the wine in her glass. I pour myself the last decent glass from the bottle. The sister motions to her glass, and I serve her the silty wine from the bottom of the bottle. Her eyes dart at me. I sit up straight and smile.

Neither Eva’s friend nor the sister have solid or positive memories of their school in São Paulo. It is clear that their set of friends did not include Eva.

Eva is slumped forward, working diligently through her plate of brisket.

I remain silent while they finish their meals.

Eva’s friend does not ask us about our lives, or about Eva’s family. They may have discussed it on the phone when they were setting up this dinner date, or not at all. I dilute my cares in the last gulp of wine.

Eva reminisces about the time she would come to her friends’ apartment, and they’d spend Saturday afternoons playing. Her description is vivid, almost literary, and it draws my attention as well as her friend’s. I picture these pre-pubescent girls in denim pants and light summer shirts, hopping about a flat that must have been bigger than most people’s homes.

Our coffees arrive. No one wants desert, and our meal ends. Eva’s friend nods in gratitude as I motion to pay the bill.

I remember the old housemaid that used to look after us at your house. I was fascinated by the stories that she used to tell us about growing up in the jungle, and of the tidbits of Indian lore that she shared when we tired of playing. Says Eva.

Her friend smiles. Our maid was young, black and from Bahia, out on the coast. She tells us with some hesitation.

The sister pulls away from the table to better take in the image of the three of us.

I have absolutely no recollection of your coming to our home to play, nor of much that you describe. I don’t think we saw each other much, or knew each other much outside of our classes together. She tells us.

Her sister nods in agreement.

Eva’s gaze is fixed on her coffee cup.

We step outside. The fields around us smell of dried straw and mold and the dust of all things ancient. Tears roll down Eva’s cheeks. The moonless night hollows the world of all shape, leaving it to our minds to populate. Eva reaches for my hand.

 

THE END



Adelino de Almeida



Adelino de Almeida is a Portuguese-American author whose work focuses on the social issues of immigration, alienation and class. He is also interested in exploring how our humanity unfolds from our innate propensity to create meaning in face of an indifferent world. His work has appeared in DOMA.com and he is seeking representation for his novel The Sublime Eucharist of Alfred Packer. He lives in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado with his wife, in a very small house with indoor plumbing and modern amenities.

Post a Comment

7 Comments

  1. elegant as it is enriching.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for reading and for the feedback!

      Delete
  2. Well-written, thought-out, and terse in its evocation of feeling. I felt that the story was nicely structured, quite plausible, and a bit constructed in its descriptions of moods and emotions, but within credibility.

    The descriptions of the subtle insults back-and-forth were most interesting to me as they struck me to be realistic. The ending, where the friend's sister denies any real friendship, was excellent in its gratuitous insultingness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for your review and insights. I tried to capture how our memories, images and conceit often conflict with reality, or, better, conflict with others' memories, images and conceit.

      Delete
  3. it read and felt real and that is the best compliment you can receive.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. That is indeed the best compliment!

      Delete
  4. Well done. I read the title two ways, and so too the story. Rich in innuendo...lush and telling imagery. The brisket and the wine were clearly dry. I sense this same lame social effort in my family. You really caught at something here.

    ReplyDelete