Nothing in my life had assured my blood relationships.
Elisa Wouk Almino
On the balcony, he points to the jagged rock and the crowded little houses that climb up the slope. Like a professor, he calls each thing by its name, teaching me how to look at the things he loves. That is the Dois Irmãos hill; next to it, the favela of Rocinha. In the quiver of his voice, the frantic change of subject, is a rush to reveal himself. An anxiety toward the role he avoided his whole life (or mine, anyhow). That of being my father.
Constantly searching for clues, he asks things you’d ask a child: if I’m doing well in school, what’s my favorite subject, what rock band. He wants to know everything about me between a spoonful of jam and a bite of bread. A summary is enough.
Yes to the first, Portuguese to the second, and Os Mutantes to the last, I respond in one go, hoping that the questionnaire die there. Undisturbed, he thinks for a while and then resumes his rhythm, making analytical assessments.
Mutantes? I thought no one your age knew that band.
I want to be sure that he knows I am seventeen years old. My looks suggest less. I stopped growing at twelve, and even then I was the shortest of my grade. So it’s easy for people to confuse me for a young girl, especially a brand-new father who never bought birthday presents. Maybe this image of a perverse angel explainshis bulging eyes, unsure of what to say upon seeing me fill my second cup of coffee and light my first cigarette of the day.
I blow smoke to the side, and ask if it bothers him. He holds on. Like a polite host, he gives me the permission to feel at home and, put on the spot, confides that he recently quit smoking. And that he thought my generation was better informed about the harmful effects of smoking.
Vices are what save us, I think of saying, but decide it’s best not to say anything at all.
The silence widens between napkin and mouth. A hard question, the kind you test first, crack open the shell to make sure it’s perfect, takes a while to find Otávio’s voice, but finally does. Which is the place I’d like to visit first in Rio de Janeiro?
The Caju cemetery, I reply without hesitating.
That’s it. Done. I’m a difficult girl. The kind who makes her parents dig their elbows into the table and hold their temples with their index and middle fingers, while their thumbs hold up their jaws, softening their perplexed mask.
Penha laughs while clearing the breakfast table, filling the room with spontaneity.
So many beautiful things to see in this city and the girl wants to go to the cemetery. It’s too much, mister Otávio!
Otávio turns pale and sinks his gaze into the table, vexed for having to be exposed to factual, public criticism.
Are you a goth? Penha guffaws,irreverent. The term learned while watching soap operas is a dessert she’ll savor among family, after work, commenting on the boss’s strange daughter who instead of the Sugar Loaf would rather visit the Caju cemetery.
The vivid laugh disappears through the swinging doors leaving behind crumbs on the checkered tablecloth and, in the air, a flammable vapor of gas stations. I put out my cigarette, fearing explosions.
Is that what you wanted? Otávio confronts me, his thin anger infiltrating thespackling of patriarchal discourse, his face agitated with indignation. He’s not among friends, he should know, but it seems he hasn’t yet understood. No one who responds to a question by posing another knows. I left his provocation to anguish alone until the rumble of cars, coming from very far away, ran it over. Otávio averted his pupils to the sky and sighed.
Hate could very well be the supreme feeling that unites us. In the end, we have the same genetic code,this guy and I. The DNA test says so. The rest of the story, the how and the why, are holes poorly patched by my mom’s crumblingstories.The basic summary is that she wasn’t faithful enough to Otávio to assure him of the genetic make-up of the embryo she carried. His doubts gave rise to heartaches, accusations, and the rest of thetextbookof imperfect loves. At the time of my birth, there was no one to photograph it.
Sometimes all you need is an excuse, the kind that only time hones, so that everything is crystalline like a recently cleaned window. Other times, however, you need a big scare to make the truth appear. My origin’s certainty needed two combined possibilities: the forties crisis banging at the door of two ex-boyfriends and one health exam that brought on the suspicion that I’d soon be my mother’s orphan. Since then, I’ve learned that death, that unavoidable neighbor, demands absolute sincerity from all of those involved. Mine included.
Let’s go to the living room? He invites me, reclining his head over his right shoulder to later repeat the samemotion over his left. He must have stretched his neck many times in his life to not lose it. This apartment, for example. The floor embroidered with Persian rugs, the scintillating crystals, and this greenery on the balcony, luxurious like a National Geographic documentary, his soul manifestingin every square meter.
Do you like it here? He catches me flagrantly appreciating his treasures. Next time I have to be more careful. I hate it when people catch me off-guard.
Beautiful. Expensive. The second adjective, attached to flattery, almost came out without meaning to, as though I’d been professionally evaluating the place.
It took me a long time to get this, Otávio defends himself, enumerating the necessary virtues to acquire an empire. Hard work, ambition, resistance. His reticent words leave his list open-ended, leading on that there’s more. A little bit of luck, too, he considers, throwing the glitter of modesty to make a good impression.
My mom said you work in publicity.
Internet. I’m an associate at a provider.
Him, a provider. My laugh explodes. It could only be a joke. Otávio pretends to not notice the irony. He wants to know if I surf the internet, which device I use, how much memory it has.
Not much. I only use my computer to write.
My friends’ kids breathe the internet. It’s fun. You don’t have the urge?
I don’t like to have fun.
It was a quote, but he would never guess it. The shadow of guilt fogs intelligence. Each sentence I utter could be perceived as rude before his sublime patriarchal intentions, because his biggest fear is to see the Fourth Commandment ripped into a million little pieces on the living room floor, soiling carpets which, so pure, promise to fly.
Without being able to contain his frustration, Otávio lets out another sigh and crosses his legs, entwining his hands over the knee that remained on top.
What do you like, then? He challenges me, half-mocking, half-irritated.
To learn, I respond, my voice disappearing at each syllable, foam that spreads upon the breaking waves.
So you must do well in school. His eyes light up: finally an opening, almost a whole conversation. I cheated until the end of college, he confides in me, animatedly. I never thought anyone had anything to teach me and . . . He continues speaking until distracting himself with his own voice. I take the opportunity to observe the house.
Does he livealone? I search the tables and countertops for a picture frame, the kind where the faces of loved ones appear, reminding us of how important we are, at least for two or three photographs. The decorations, all in all, are few. Almost always sculptures or objects of obscure use coming from some faraway place.
It was a quote, but he would never guess it
Oh, the ocean! I remember. I have to find out whether it’s far, if I can go to the beach on foot, walk alone, walk until I know what it’s like just before daybreak, before anyone has stopped to observe it.
Upon discovering that he was talking to himself, Otávio shuts up. He stretcheshis forearm, looks at his wrist and jumps.
I need to stop at work. After that we’ll have the whole weekend to ourselves. Penha will keep you company, he guarantees, if I’d like to go out, walk, see the nearby lagoon. He excuses himself and disappears into the hallway.
I’m infinitely more comfortable with no one around. Things begin to make sense. I need calm to feel them, to know what they mean, if I like them or not. It takes such a long time to acclimate to the new, that it seems as though there won’t be enough time for this. Instead of living, a verb too irresponsible for being so demanding, we should instead say I am devoting myself, like a hard job, the kind that demands every hour of the day.
Otávio reemerges. He’s changed and combed his hair. He calls Penha and delivers orders while he gets his keys. He stops for a second, looks at me and asks if I need anything. I shake my head. He says he’ll be back for lunch and shuts the door. The stifled sound of the wood returns the silence of before, but now a musky perfume floats in the air.
Where is the Caju cemetery? I enter the kitchen, scaring Penha. Can I walk there?
No, you can’t, Penha replies. It’s all the way by São Cristóvão.
I count my money between the pages of a book. I show the amount to Penha, and ask her if it’s enough for a taxi. She says I shouldn’t go alone.
The city is dangerous, you don’t know anything. Mister Otávio won’t like it.
I leave hurriedly, Penha follows me to the elevator, threatens to call “your father,” while summoning saints unknown to me. I press the ground floor button and, making sure I have the stone on me, promise to be home for lunch.
Part of the way is pretty. It skirtsthe lagoon, filled with boatmen and people who exercise as though it were a holiday. The taxi enters a tunnel so long that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the blue sky waiting at the exit. Beyond, it’s the overpasses that extend their tongues over the buildings, making the car fly over the city. Further along, that suburban gray, the low houses, narrow streets.
In the display window of a shop, a crown of flowers announces that we’re almost there. A high wall now accompanies the car. An angel’s wing spies on the movement outside. Further along, a cross. The taxi slows down and parks.
The Jewish Cemetery is right there, says the driver.
Flush withthe sidewalk, the wall continues, blocking my vision. I allow my fingers to brush against the rough surface of the brick until it hurts my skin. Underneath the cheap paint, I can feel the cold, ancient like the earth, revealing the soul of all walls. I feel like leaning my forehead there, allow the indifference of the centuries to calm the quick beats of my heart, which wants to always be other, or finally be the same, and beats merely to remind me that it’s waiting on a decision.
The opacity of the wall is finally interrupted by the grating of a gate. In each of the leaves, the fine iron spears point to the firmaments. In the middle of theirpath they give up their verticality to form a design of two six-pointed stars, and return to their former righteousness until they pierce the sky. Behind them, rows of slabs, long and narrow like single beds, stamp the terrainfrom north to south.
Right in the middle, organizing the dormitory, the main street made of Portuguese stones alternates in black waves and white waves. A celestial blue porch takes over it. The pillars rise to the left and to the right, surmounted by a pointy roof. They remind me of the little houses that one draws in childhood, made only of outlines, hollow on the inside. Up above, a thunbergia flower holds on tightly to the woodwork. It’s too young to understand why it’s there, but its destiny of shade and shelter isinscribed.
The repeating white of the tombs doesn’t help me in deciding which direction to take. I choose the nearest row. Starting in the middle might not be very rational, but after investigating three aisles of identical rectangles and reading the Hebrew inscriptions, I discover that they are organized by date, or that many people died in 1968.
The more I advance, the more the hollowness of silence closes in on itself, amplifying the sound of soles crumbling the earth. The heat also grows, and I feel lost. I stop, listen more attentively. Nothing moves, save for one bee perturbed by the sun. I wait, immobile, until my ears reach the stifled sound ofrepeating beats very far from where I am.
I retrace myfootprints and after turning corners and taking the wrong path, I spot a mason kneeling next to an open grave. I approach cautiously, avoiding scaring him with my presence. The man turns around, stopping his pickaxe mid-thrust. I greet him. He responds, maintaining the butt of his cigar in the corner of his mouth, then stretches his chin toward the open emptiness in the ground and adds, don’t be scared, it’s only a construction job. I smile, trying to show my trust, and I ask where the grave I’m looking for is. The man points a shovel dirty with cement towards the direction from where I came.
Continue that way until you reach street G. It’s the seventh, to the left.
I thank him, relieved, and, upon turning my back, I hear him ask. Are you of the family, miss?
I turn around, my tongue already nestled behind my front teeth, the breath of n ready to initiate a no, when an idea swirls in the depths of my answer, delaying it.
No, I wasn’t a daughter, niece, cousin. No genealogical root linked me to her, but to which family could I claim pertaining to? I didn’t have a father until today and when he shows up, it’s my mom who leaves: an arrangement too simple for a family institution; it offends the most elemental laws that regulate it. Nothing in my life had assured my blood relationships. If I wanted a family, I’d have to create it myself. Make a particular selection of people and invent an affinity that would unite us. A desperate comprehension, for example, instead of blood. So yes, I could affirm, yell to the gravedigger, that Clarice was a family member to me more than anyone else in the world.
With her I finally shared something similar. Something fundamental. She was someone who looked me in the eyes, and in this looklaid the secret we shared. A secret that only exists in the complicity of knowing it, like all family secrets. She took away my fear of going crazy just because what I felt didn’t yet have a name. She encouraged me to be who I was, to like being it. She took upon herselfmy strangeness, pointed out the beauty that lied in it and, above all, surrounded it with dignity. Let the rest of the world be stupefied if I was one of those who kill to flourish.
Before I could say a victorious yes, hissingwith conviction, the man had already resumed his task, indifferent like a mason who erects tombs under the sun.
I slowly return to the main street. I turn the indicated corner and my eyes are directed to the marble that rises from the ground like a stuffed pigeon’s chest. A Cubist pigeon. On the gravestone, the letters were painted by hand over the carved mold. On the top line, her name in Hebrew and a star of David. A single date, 12–9–1977, burying forever the mystery of the yearshe was born.
Clarice Lispector, I read. Clarice Lispector, I read again, repeating, repeating, until my eyes believeit.
A salty taste invades my mouth. Tears fill the hidden channels beneath my face, but don’t run. I hold them back to make me stronger in my suffering. I only want to cry when pain is bigger than comprehension. And herewe meet. I am before the gravestone of Clarice Lispector and this is my story. I had come all the way there to live it, to fashion myself from the things I like, to yield to the smallest manifestation of my difficult, rough, desperate self. Above all, I had gone there to be adopted, to enroll.
I take the stone from my pocket and place it on the surface spattered with light. A ritual whose meaning I don’t fully comprehend, but that I borrow to initiate the tradition of my lineage.
Midday swept away any possibility of shadows. I caress the milky bed. The powder sticks to my fingers, reminding me of the eternal dust that we are and will be. My body aches with celebration. Behind me I hear a noise. I’m not in a hurry. I know that if I turn around I will see Otávio, hands in his pockets, somewhere between being furious and relieved, thinking of what to do with me. There are, finally, things for which he doesn’t have a name. But he might be near, very near, to knowing the order ofwild hearts.
Adriana Lunardi is a writer and screenwriter. She is the author of Vésperas (Eve), Corpo Estranho (Foreign Body), and A Vendedora de Fósforos (The Match Girl). For television, she authored with Max Mallmann the fiction series Ilha de Ferro (Iron Isle). Lunardi lives in Rio de Janeiro.
Elisa Wouk Almino is a writer and literary translator based in Los Angeles. She is the deputy editor of Image magazine at the Los Angeles Times. She is the translator of This House by Ana Martins Marques and the editor of Alice Trumbull Mason: Pioneer of American Abstraction.