Verdad Magazine Volume 12
Fall 2012, Volume 13
Fiction by Brian Sousa
Catarina and Shannon sat outside of a café on Gran Via. The glossy tablecloth rippled in the wind, and the crescent moon looked as though it was made of the same white paper and fastened to the clouds.
Their husbands, Max and Walter, were in their beds back in the hotel, in rooms 102 and 103.
“Cat,” Shannon said. “I bought cigarettes.” She tapped her pocketbook. “Like we talked about?’
Catarina shook her head and stared at Shannon’s red, sunburned chest. Her dress was cut low, and her breasts threatened to spill out. Catarina had worn the tight dress that Shannon had convinced her to wear, but compared to Shannon she felt plain and boring. “We didn’t talk about anything. You just said you wanted to start smoking again.”
“You should try one. Are you going to try one?”
“No,” Catarina said, “I won’t.” The thought of it made her feel ill. She could see the black smoke coursing down her throat and soaking like ink into her pink lungs. “People spend years trying to quit smoking. Doesn’t it seem strange to you to want to start over?”
Shannon pursed her lips and drew the pack of cigarettes from an inner pocket of her purse. She slid her hand carefully under the plastic wrap, then pricked it with the fingernail of her index finger. It peeled back and came off all in one piece. “It’s not strange,” she said, examining the box. Health warnings were printed in Spanish over graphic pictures. CUIDADO, this one said. IMPOTENCIA. It had a tiny picture of a man and a woman sitting in bed. The man looked sad, the woman angry. Shannon snickered and held the pack up, but Catarina looked away.
The street was quiet. They’d met, as planned, at the café on the corner. One block away loomed their hotel, a bulky white building framed by palm trees with gray, peeling bark. To their right, in the corner, a man who looked to be in his forties was sitting across from a young girl.
Shannon drummed the pack against her palm. “We have to order something.”
“Get a drink,” said Catarina.
“What are you having?”
“A bottle of water.”
Shannon rolled her eyes, shrugged, and motioned for the waiter. He had a damp white towel slung over his shoulder, and there was a smudge of something black on his arm. She ordered in broken Spanish that was strung together loosely with false bursts of laughter.
Catarina suddenly felt very tired. She envisioned peeling back the covers to the bed, sliding onto the taut white sheets that looked soft but felt like cardboard. She’d sleep as late as she pleased. She’d trained Max not to touch her when he awoke, no matter how badly he wanted to.
“We should both be drinking,” Shannon said.
“I’m tired,” said Catarina. “And there’s no one here, Shannon.”
“Who did you expect to be here?”
Shannon pointed at the man seated in the corner. The girl was now leaning close to him, the plastic chair under her bending. The man cradled her face in his hands.
“I bet that’s not his daughter,” Shannon said loudly, raising one eyebrow.
The girl had bare feet and wore a red handkerchief in her hair. Catarina wondered what it felt like to have those big, heavy fingers pressed against her temples.
Shannon downed half of her glass of sangria and motioned for another. Catarina took a sip of water and kicked off her sandals under the table.
“Jesus, have a fucking drink.” Shannon’s voice became more desperate.
Catarina shrugged and motioned to the waiter, her fingers snapping across the blank sky. There was really no reason not to. Besides, just being around Shannon lately put her on edge. If she brought up what she wanted to, she risked an argument, and she didn’t care enough about it to get into a full-blown fight. Or did she? A piece of her wondered if Shannon had betrayed her, but it was a small piece. Betrayal, she thought, was human. Lying and even cheating were a bigger part of all of their lives than they chose to admit.
The waiter smiled skeptically when he brought her sangria. Headlights sparked in the street behind them.
“That’s my girl,” said Shannon. She rolled a cigarette between her fingers and then lit it with a snap. “Let’s get out of here,” she said, holding the smoke in. “The bar over there looks much better.” She gestured to the place across the street, where a crowd of people streamed from a beat-up taxi. “Let’s do something that isn’t on the goddamn itinerary.”
Catarina thought of the crisp white copies that Max had printed before they left. They read “Madrid, 2008” across the top, and “Free Time” was even a category. That was just the way that Max was. He’d never seemed to consider exactly why she’d married him, or if he had, he’d never mentioned it. Had he ever wondered if it was just for his money? Catarina had no way of knowing. There had always been men who desired her; some were better looking, a few had even been wealthier, but in the beginning, Catarina used to like how much her mere presence pleased Max. There was an honest simplicity in his infatuation with her that she envied, because she could never feel that way.
Over the past six months, though, things had changed, and Catarina had stopped having sex with him altogether. At night, she pretended to sleep while he lay next to her, waiting anxiously. It saddened Catarina a little, because she thought that Max was a decent man at heart. But recently, she wondered about Shannon. She knew that her friend had come over to see Max when she wasn’t there. She knew that Shannon didn’t give a shit about Walter. It was impossible, lately, to not question everything.
“Cat? Let’s go. Vamos!” Shannon said. Catarina couldn’t help but admire the way she exhaled a perfect ring of silver.
On the patio next door, women in bright red dresses and sandals flashed yellow smiles at men with slicked-back hair. Candle flames shivered in the wind as cars rattled the street.
“This is perfect,” breathed Shannon, grabbing Catarina by the back of her shirt as they walked by the bouncer.
“Sangria,” shouted Catarina to the bartender. His hair was gray and he wore a wrinkled tuxedo. Shannon reached out and yanked at his bow tie.
“Señorita,” he said, “porfavor, Señorita.”
Laughter erupted from two men at the side of the bar. Catarina thought they looked too young to even be there. One of them wore a ponytail, and the other’s head was shaved. The one with the ponytail grinned at her. She pretended not to notice.
At the table, Shannon drank quickly and nodded her head to the music, but her movements were off-rhythm. The hostess appeared before them in a yellow dress. Catarina could smell her perfume.
“There will be a flamenco show inside in fifteen minutes,” the girl whispered, as if telling a secret. She went on to the next table.
Shannon lit another cigarette. “What did she say?”
“Flamenco,” Catarina said. Her head was beginning to feel light. She was happier. There would be time to talk later. She wasn’t sure she had ever truly loved Max. Maybe Shannon had just made a mistake. Maybe nothing had happened. Really, did any of it matter? Catarina felt as if she could just float away. There was no way to stop time, no way to go back. But what if she could figure out a way to forget everything? What if she could render herself blank, and become someone else? Perhaps all of her decisions since leaving Portugal had been wrong. Perhaps there was still time to change them.
Shannon and Catarina walked inside, where the dark room smelled of stale beer and music pounded incessantly. They stood near the bar and watched a man ready the small stage, moving chairs around and setting up a microphone.
Shannon pulled Catarina onto the dance floor and began to swing her around awkwardly. Some of the men who were standing against the wall whistled. One of them suddenly squeezed his wiry body in between them, taking each of their hands and twirling them. He was short and had a toothpick clenched in his mouth. His hand slipped down Catarina’s arm, darted into her armpit for a second, and then wrapped tightly around her waist. Catarina recoiled and pushed hard against his bony ribs.
“Pervert,” Shannon muttered, pulling her away. “I think the show is starting. Look.”
She pointed to the stage just as the music from the stereo was abruptly shut off. Two women in white ruffled dresses appeared, and they were joined by two men with guitars. One of the men spoke into the microphone but his voice was drowned out by a squeal of feedback.
“Let’s go back outside,” said Shannon.
“Didn’t you see those guys at the bar? Looking at us?”
The music began. The women stamped their feet, the thick soles of their shoes drumming the wooden stage. The plucking of guitars intertwined and the strings rang as the beat grew faster. The sequins on the women’s dresses glinted.
Shannon bobbed her head. Catarina saw again that she was hopelessly off-rhythm.
“Those guys looked fifteen, Shannon,” said Catarina as she followed her through the door.
Outside, a crowd had gathered, and everyone was pressed against the bar, their voices echoing in the damp air. Catarina could only understand Spanish if people spoke slowly and directly to her. Many of the words and sounds were similar to Portuguese, but she didn’t find it nearly as beautiful.
“They’re still here,” said Shannon, pointing to the bar.
“I think I see a table in the corner,” said Catarina. “I’m going to sit down.”
From the table she watched Shannon slide in between the guy with the ponytail and his friend. Soon they were all nodding and staring back at her, and she wished she had a cigarette, or a drink, something to hold.
“They bought us drinks,” Shannon said when they followed her over to the table, “and they speak English.”
“Where are the chairs?” asked the guy with the shaved head.
“Go get some,” said the other. “From inside.”
“I’ll sit with her,” said Shannon, and perched on Catarina’s lap. Inside they could hear the music reaching a frenzied pitch. People were cheering and shouting along with the stamping and the furious twang of the guitars.
Shannon lit a cigarette and coughed. “Oh, it’s good, Cat,” she wheezed, “so good to be back.”
The guy with the ponytail stood awkwardly before them, bouncing back and forth from one foot to the other.
“Your friend didn’t tell me your name,” he said to Catarina.
Catarina shrugged. “How old are you?”
“Her name’s Catarina,” Shannon said.
“I’m Diego,” he said, sitting down, “and this is Francisco.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” said Catarina.
“Cat, don’t be a bitch,” said Shannon.
“That’s all right,” said Diego. “I’m twenty, and Francisco is twenty-two.”
“Are you lying?” asked Catarina. Shannon blew smoke into the air. Diego pulled his chair closer to her. “Yes,” he said, laughing, “I’m nineteen.”
Francisco pushed closer to Shannon and put his hand on her back. “I bet you’re around my age,” he said, and she leaned her head on his shoulder for a second.
“You don’t sound American,” Diego said, staring at Catarina intently.
“Eu sou Português,” she said. She liked the way his T-shirt clung to his arms. He was talking to her very carefully, as if he knew that if he said one thing wrong, she’d walk away. It was almost amusing.
Shannon lit Francisco’s cigarette with the tip of hers and touched his bicep with her hand. “Nice,” she said as he flexed proudly, “very nice.”
She might as well just start taking her clothes off, Catarina thought. But this had been the plan, hadn’t it? Even if they’d never said it, isn’t this what they’d both been driving at? Isn’t this why they’d gone out without their husbands?
“Let’s go inside and dance,” said Diego.
“Catarina is a fabulous dancer,” said Shannon.
“More sangria, Catarina?” asked Diego.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling at him. He overfilled her glass, and sangria pooled on the table and dribbled into her lap.
“You idiot!” said Francisco.
“It’s okay,” said Catarina, blotting at her white skirt with her napkin. The stain was right on her crotch. It looked like blood. She could feel Diego staring at it.
“That might stain, Cat. You should go to the bathroom and get some soap,” warned Shannon.
“Fucking idiot,” said Francisco.
Catarina looked at the red blotches. “It’ll be fine.”
Diego looked horrified. He kept extending his hand toward her lap and then pulling it back. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’ll go get some soap. What can I do? What should I do?”
“No,” Catarina said, “that’s all right. It’s just kind of cold. See?” She put her hand on his and brought it into her lap and his eyes widened. His open palm was warm as she pressed it down.
When the four of them went back inside, Catarina mostly watched Shannon, how easily she rubbed her body against Francisco. Diego was bolder now, and he rubbed her back as they bobbed their heads, crushed against each other by the crowd, their words drowned out by the crescendo of voices. He put his arm around her as Catarina danced, but she shook it off. She liked the feeling of disappearing into the crowd, and once she pushed away from all of them, feeling the heat and the noise as it threatened to swallow her. When she found her way back through the crowd, Diego grinned.
“Thought you left me,” he said.
Finally, Shannon put a sweaty arm around Catarina and pulled her neck roughly. Their heads banged into each other’s.
“We can go to Francisco’s,” said Shannon. “I’m going to Francisco’s.”
Catarina nodded. “What do we tell our husbands?” she said.
“Good question. We’ll tell them that you drank too much and got sick, and we slept on the beach together.”
Catarina looked at her friend’s drooping eyes, the lines etched in her forehead that she covered with makeup. She felt far away from her already. Far away from Max. Far from everyone.
Diego put his arm around her waist. “Let’s go,” he said.
Francisco lived in a small apartment a few blocks away, near the Plaza de Espana. He poured them each a glass of red wine and shoved magazines and dirty paper plates off the couch so they could sit down. Diego put on a CD and sat next to Catarina on the couch as Shannon and Francisco danced, gripping each other as if they each feared that this could all disappear at any moment. Diego slipped his hand inside Catarina’s shirt and his fingers traced up her spine. When the song ended, Francisco led Shannon into the kitchen, and then a door slammed and Catarina flinched.
It had happened even faster than Catarina expected. Even Diego’s hand stopped moving and just hovered there. Catarina stood to look at a picture on the wall. It was a blown-up photograph of green mountains speckled with white churches and pink houses. In the distance, atop the mountains, there was what looked like an enormous palace.
“Where is that?” Catarina asked.
“Granada. I have family there.”
“It looks nice.”
“It’s beautiful there. That is the Alhambra. We can go there someday. Come back over here.”
Catarina walked to the window and looked out. Below them, the crowded lights of the city shone yellow and white. Brake lights blinked on in warning, and then disappeared.
“Come back,” Diego said again.
When she sat back down, Diego immediately kissed her neck, her ears, the sides of her face. Catarina let him take off her shirt and touch her breasts.
“It’s still wet,” he said, running his hand over the red stain on her skirt. But his hands felt colder now. The CD blared as Diego pressed her back into the couch. His face was so eager that she almost wanted to. But when he reached to yank down her skirt she shook her head, and his hands paused, trembling against her stomach.
“No, not tonight,” she said simply.
Diego’s face rippled in amazement. His mouth jutted open. “What?”
“I don’t want to.” She could feel how hard he was, pressed against her. The music grew louder.
“You don’t—you don’t? Then what are we doing here? Why are we here?” Diego leaned down on her with all his weight, bouncing on top of her. “That’s not fair,” he said frantically. “Come on!”
Catarina waited a moment, let him get comfortable again, let him kiss her neck, and then elbowed him in the side as hard as she could. “Off!” she said loudly, rolling out from under him.
“What’s wrong with you?!” He looked as though he might stand up and grab her but he punched the couch cushion and then slumped on his stomach. “Puta!”
Catarina’s head was spinning. She looked down at Diego. “Calm down,” she said. “It’s not your fault. I’m sure you’re very good.” But he was probably too young, too inexperienced. In the same way that Max was too old and predictable.
“I am!” he said, sitting up hopefully. “Look, just give me a chance.” He lowered his voice. “I’m sorry, okay? Give me the chance.”
“I can’t,” she said, shrugging. But as she turned, he stood up and grabbed her waist. He held onto her with such wiry strength that for a second she was worried, and she froze there, locked together with this man she didn’t know. This child.
The song ended. Diego’s fingers dug into her back. Catarina didn’t move. Suddenly, they could both hear Shannon moaning in the other room.
Diego relaxed his grip, breathing heavily, then let go. Catarina stumbled forward. Diego looked embarrassed and collapsed on the couch, pouring more wine. “I’m sorry,” he kept saying. “I didn’t mean anything by it. You’re just so beautiful. I am sorry, I am.”
Out on the street pigeons squatted silently, waiting for dawn.
“My head hurts,” announced Shannon. “Did you fuck him?”
“Well, did you?”
“No. Did you?”
Shannon stumbled in her heels and leaned against Catarina, resting her head on her shoulder. “Yeah. And it was pretty good, too. Younger men don’t get tired, you know?”
Catarina thought of Diego’s pleading face, how he’d written his number on a napkin and made her take it.
“Why didn’t you?” asked Shannon. “Cat?”
Catarina ignored her. The sky was growing brighter.
“Have you ever slept with Max, Shannon?”
“Just tell me.”
Shannon stared at Catarina. “What are you talking about? Of course not!” Shannon’s teeth and lips were stained red with wine. “What, just because of tonight?”
Catarina knew that Shannon was lying. She’d have bet her life on it. In one movement she twisted away from Shannon’s grasp and bent her arm behind her. Catarina felt Shannon exhale sharply in surprise and pain, and then go silent. The street was impossibly quiet. Shannon was trembling.
“Forget it,” Catarina said, letting go. “I must still be drunk. Forget it.”
Shannon kneeled down and clutched her stomach. “How can I forget it? Where did you—why did you—”
“Let’s just forget this whole night.”
“No, Cat, I can’t. I loved this night. I loved getting you out here, getting you to, I don’t know, open up a little, you know?” She sat on the curb and put her head between her legs, groaning. Catarina could see her underwear.
“You know that’s what people say, right, about you?” Shannon’s voice was hoarse.
“What do they say? What does who say?”
Shannon spat. “You’re closed off. You are. And I just wanted to—”
“Did Max say that, Shannon?” Catarina was growing impatient. She had to pee. Dawn was crawling in, and it would bring the heat of the sun and the hustle of the locals to the street. “Shannon, get up.”
“I’m going to be sick.” Shannon’s head bobbed woozily. “What the hell is wrong with you? I mean, really, you’re—”
“I just want someone—anyone—to tell me the goddamn truth. Everything, everything lately has been so . . .”
Catarina heard her words echo, watched them disappear into the white light of morning. Then she turned and began to walk away. “It doesn’t matter.” She heard the warm slap of vomit hitting the pavement, but she didn’t look back.
Slipping into the cool, abandoned lobby, Catarina thought of how it had felt to twist Shannon’s arm. She could’ve broken it easily. How would it feel to snap thin bones, to tear muscle? What would have happened if she hadn’t let go?
That was the thing. There was no one to answer to anymore. And she wasn’t going to let herself go back to Lisbon, to aunts and uncles who would say things like “We’ve been expecting you,” to her cousin Rui, who would embrace her and then hold her at arm’s length, smirking, examining her face.
Catarina had been careful not to wake Max. She took only two of his four credit cards and all of the cash from his wallet, and left a note on the table. It read: Please do not look for me. I do not love you. I’m going away.
The air smelled of coffee and plantains. Stray cats yawned and licked in the stubby, burnt-out bushes along the sides of the street. Catarina bought a bottle of water and an orange at a small café. There were flowers in small wooden boxes at each table, the colors shockingly bright. The woman behind the counter held a child in her arms. Behind her a small dog, his white fur tinged with red dirt, slept in the shadows.
Catarina pointed to the baby. “¿Su nombre?” she asked hesitantly.
“Miguel,” the woman said, proudly rocking her son. Her face was blotchy and craggy and dark hair hung limply to her shoulders. “¿Y tu?”
The woman smiled at her. “¿Es usted Español?”
“No, eu sou Portuguesa,” said Catarina. “¿Puedo?”
Catarina reached over the cash register. The baby was heavier than she’d thought. He pushed at her chest restlessly with a chubby foot.
Catarina turned and looked through the window, holding Miguel tightly. A bus rolled slowly into view and came to a stop. “Where does that one go?” she asked.
“Granada,” said the woman, touching Catarina’s back with her hand and pointing. “Si, Granada. Muy hermoso.”
The bus sighed in the heat. The two women stared at it silently. Miguel opened his eyes and began to cry.
“Give back.” The woman held out her arms. “Give back. He cry todo el dia. Give back.”
Catarina handed Miguel back to his mother and watched her rock him until he quieted down. Then, in the new silence, both women fixed their eyes on the window, each of them waiting for something.
Nuno squeezed the letter so tightly that his hand shook. A loose wave of dizziness hit him, and he leaned against the wall. All around him, Helena’s old dresses hung silently, like old ghosts.
He’d been digging through cardboard boxes, looking for that picture, the drawing that Helena had done of him playing football long ago. Paulo was trying out for the team next week, and Nuno was going to tack it up in his room, surprise him with it.
But the letter had found him first, folded neatly and tucked inside of a small wooden jewelry box. That was the thing too; it wasn’t crumpled up, but put away carefully. The letter was from Mateo. After all of these years, it was really written in the way that Nuno had imagined he would write it—like a damn woman. There were hearts drawn on the side of the page, and even the faded letters were curly.
Nuno closed his eyes and everything came back. The sight of Mateo’s pale face on the bed, the sand all over the blankets. How Nuno had crept away alone, leaving Helena there. She hadn’t seen him, he was sure of that. And he’d never told her that he was there that night. He’d tried, in the days that followed, but he hadn’t been able to. And slowly, the days and months and years piled over it, bringing a home thousands of miles away, and children, and new worries and problems. But that awful guilt had followed him everywhere, hadn’t it? There was no escaping it. Nuno tried to breathe deeply, tried to calm himself down, but it was no use. He slumped against the wall and waited for the nausea to pass. Thank God Helena wasn’t home.
He knew he wasn’t innocent. Sure, it scared him. But he’d lived a long life already. He’d done good things and bad. He still believed in God, but he wasn’t really sure what happened when people died. What would happen to him. But what was done was done. There was no going back, that was for sure.
Finally, Nuno opened his eyes and pushed his feet forward. How long had he been standing in this goddamn closet? It was dumb, really, all of it. There was nothing he could do. The past was the past. Helena would be home from Mass soon. There was still half the lawn to mow, and he’d left a cold beer on the counter. He put everything back in the box the way it was, shoved it into the shadows, and closed the door.
But as he walked downstairs, everything felt sucked of color. The sunlight poured through the windows, but it was ugly, heavy, and hot. Nuno swigged his beer, but it was warm. He poured it down the sink, watching the foam disappear. For the first time in thirty-four years, he felt different. About everything. He wasn’t what had changed. But something was off.
When Helena pulled into the driveway, Nuno was sitting at the kitchen table, his usual spot. The door slammed, and he heard her talking to herself. He worried more about her driving alone lately. Her knees and ankles were tight with arthritis, and she didn’t pay enough attention to the road. She was stubborn, though. She still insisted on driving to the few places that she went to frequently—church, the doctor’s office, the supermarket, Paulo’s school—and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sometimes Nuno wondered if the medication had changed her. If she could change back.
He’d been paging through a soccer magazine that he’d bought for Paulo, unable to focus. He’d ask her about the letter right away. Why she’d kept it. What she knew. What she had been keeping from him all these years.
But when she finally walked in, bringing with her a burst of humid August air, Nuno couldn’t say anything. He just listened as she groaned.
“It’s too hot,” she panted, dropping a sagging brown bag of groceries on the table before him. “Chicken for dinner.” Nuno peered at her intently. Her forehead was damp with sweat, and some strands of graying hair were pasted to her face. She used to be beautiful, he thought. She was still pretty, though. Older-looking, but pretty. Was he still handsome? Over the last few years, he had begun to feel his entire body shrink and droop with age.
“I thought you were going to church?”
Helena checked the clock on the stove and then walked to the windowsill, where she kept her pills. He’d been surprised that there were so many, but they seemed to be working. After coming home that day and finding her all wrapped up in that business with the dog, Nuno just wanted her to get better. The doctor had made them go see another doctor together, a psychiatrist, and she called what had happened to Helena an “episode,” prescribed a bunch of medication, and said that it would “take years to get to the heart of what caused it.” The psychiatrist’s office smelled like tobacco, and there were strange posters on the walls, of planets and pyramids. When they left, Nuno told Helena that they could handle their problems at home, together, without the woman who glared at him as if he’d done something wrong. What had he done? He’d convinced Mr. Costa not to go to the police and forgiven his wife for what she did. That was more than enough. He didn’t need to sit in some woman’s office and tell her how he felt about the whole goddamn thing.
Helena swallowed, sighed, and sat down across from him. “I did. Short Mass. And then I go to pick up grocery.”
Her English had improved, but she still screwed up a lot. Nuno didn’t think she really cared about learning the language. Some days, he would correct her, but today he could only watch her silently. She picked up the soccer magazine, shrugged, and tossed it down. Then she smiled tiredly.
“What’s the matter? You don’t look good. You need to eat?” She kneaded her face with her hands. “I’ll start soon, don’t worry.”
Nuno shook his head, finished his beer. “Where’s Paulo?”
“He’s running on the beach, Nuno, like you told him to.”
“I don’t think so.”
Helena opened the refrigerator and peered inside.
“He should be running every day. He’s not going to make it.” Nuno waited as Helena nodded absently and moved her lips, talking to herself as she planned dinner. When she didn’t respond, he left the room, wondering how much she really listened to him.
Paulo was quiet at the table, pushing bread into his mouth. His eyes were red.
“What were you doing at the beach?” Nuno asked.
“When do tryouts start?”
“You already asked me that, Dad,” he said, his mouth full. His hair and his shirt were still wet.
“Well, what time?”
Paulo shrugged, signaling Helena to pass the butter dish. He mashed some onto his bread with a knife.
“Paulo, I need to know so I can bring you. There might be traffic.”
“There’s no traffic on Saturdays,” he mumbled.
“Well, we should get there early, anyway.”
“I don’t want you to stay and watch,” he said quickly, “and Chris can give me a ride home.”
“Who’s Chris?” asked Helena.
“He’s trying out too. He’s—”
“Not an athlete,” Nuno snapped. Helena stared at him. He thought of her staring at Mateo, resting her head on his chest. “I will always remember the first night,” the letter had read. What had happened the first night? Nuno’s stomach churned.
“Why don’t you want me to watch?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm. “My father always watched me, in Portugal, you know? He told me what to do to get better, he helped—”
“No, I don’t want you to,” said Paulo. He looked to Helena, but she pushed her food across her plate with her fork.
“Fine,” Nuno said, “fine.”
Paulo stared at him for a second. “Can I go?” he said.
“Where?” Helena asked.
“To watch TV,” he said, standing and dumping his empty plate on the counter.
“Paulo, I made cookies,” she called. “Paulo!”
Nuno and Helena sat there in the new emptiness, staring at each other. Nuno had always loved her eyes. They had faded, and the right eye was now the pale blue of the sky, while the left was a dull green. Nuno thought they were even more beautiful the way they were now.
Right then, Nuno wanted to tell her that he knew. That he’d always known. That he’d been there that night. That he’d watched her kneel down and begin to sob. “How could you?” she would whisper, and then her heavy steps would echo as she ran upstairs and slammed the door.
But Helena just sat there, drumming her fingers softly on the table. Nuno had noticed that since she’d been taking the medicine regularly, she’d been much more fidgety. She’d also started smoking more.
“Cigarette,” she said as she walked toward the front door. “I clean after.”
That night Nuno stayed downstairs and watched TV long after Paulo, and then Helena, went to bed. When Helena said goodnight to Paulo, she kissed his cheek and she rubbed his back.
“Sleep well,” she said in the way that she always did, starting low and ending on a high note. “’Night, Dad,” Paulo said as he went upstairs.
“Goodnight!” Nuno yelled loudly, and Helena looked over, scowling.
“I’m going up,” she said. “Are you okay? You feel sick?”
He shook his head and watched as she slowly maneuvered out of the room. The blue lines of her veins climbed her calves.
Nuno could barely watch TV. Were they always this quiet around him? Something still felt off, and he couldn’t put his finger on it. A beer might help, but he was tired and didn’t feel like it.
It was warm out, and he walked out the front door and stood on the doorstep. It had been a good summer for the garden. Nuno had dug it out a bit and made it longer and wider this year, added some soil. In the shine of the moon he could see the cherry tomato plants weighed down with fruit. He inhaled the salt in the air and remembered Lagos. How different everything was. How, days after everything happened, Helena had come right up to him and touched her finger to his lower lip, where she’d cut him.
“I’m sorry,” she had said.
“I’m sorry, too,” he’d said. And that was that. Well, in some ways. She hadn’t said one word about it since then, either. Not one word.
Nuno shut the door and climbed the stairs. It was a mistake. That’s what Antonio called it in the days afterward, before he and Nuno stopped talking to each other altogether. A mistake.
The door to the bedroom was cracked open, but the room seemed darker than usual. Nuno searched for the light on the night table, knocking a book to the floor. Helena coughed and her eyes switched on.
When Nuno slid into bed, sleep wouldn’t come. His finger lingered on his bottom lip. It had faded into a tiny mark, like a dimple. He remembered the way Helena swung her arm, the sudden taste of blood. His head spun and he rolled it across the pillow. His eyes clung to the crescent on the floor, the light from the hallway. It felt as though his life had become someone else’s, but Nuno knew that wasn’t true, it wasn’t true at all. This life had always been his. He’d just chosen to ignore it.
Helena pressed against him, facing away. Nuno wanted, suddenly, to hold onto her as tightly as he could to stop the feeling that was washing over him, as if he was adrift in those waves again, being tossed by the current. It was out of his control, all of it. His heart drummed under the covers, and he yanked the covers down.
He rubbed his hands up and down Helena’s legs. Eventually, she pulled him toward her. Her breath came long and easy now and her movements were slow, mechanical. Was she bored? Did she not want him anymore? Nuno tensed suddenly, and she reached back, feeling with her hand.
In the dim light, Nuno saw Mateo’s face appear—the straight white gleam of his smile, the long locks of hair—and he knew that Helena had done this with him. That maybe she’d loved Mateo more than she could love him.
“What’s the matter?” Helena whispered hesitantly.
Nuno rolled onto his back. His upper lip was wet.
“It’s all right, dear,” Helena said, rolling over. “It’s all right. You must be getting sick.” She was asleep within minutes.
Nuno awoke slowly and brought his knees up to his chest, waiting for his legs to brush Helena’s. But they never did. He opened his eyes. The clock said nine.
“Where were you?” asked Paulo, glancing up from the table. Helena placed a mug of steaming coffee in front of Nuno as he sat down.
“There are more pancakes,” she said over her shoulder. “We were waiting.”
Paulo gulped his juice. “Are you sick? It’s so late.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?” Nuno asked Helena groggily.
“Maybe you needed it,” she said, coming over and putting a hand on his shoulder. “Your body needed it. You feel better?”
Nuno could smell the grease on her oven mitt. “Sure,” he said. Paulo stood up. The shirt he was wearing said “The Beatles” in faded lettering. “Where did you get that?”
“I’ve had this for a year. What time are we leaving?”
Nuno stared at him. Tryouts. “We’re leaving at ten.”
“That’s in a half hour!”
“Right. Get ready.”
Paulo dragged his way upstairs.
“Did he say something?”
“I didn’t hear anything.” Helena piled pancakes on his plate and filled his coffee cup to the brim, so that it would be impossible to lift without spilling.
“Nuno, it happen to everyone. Never happen before, right? Maybe just one time, that’s it. Não se preocupe.”
Nuno sat there and stared ahead, past the bottles of pills on the windowsill, out to where the sun was shining. Helena was cleaning up, whistling to herself. She paused and followed his gaze.
“Better get those tomatoes soon,” she warned. “Ripe. Ready to burst.”
There was no traffic as they drove to the field.
“We’re going to be there so early,” said Paulo, rolling down his window. “Can you open your window?”
“You want to be there early,” Nuno said, cranking it down, “so the coach knows you care. Trust me, now. Is it still Coach—”
“Ah, you need a Portuguese coach. Davis doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Paulo didn’t say anything, just looked out the window. Nuno saw he had his fist clenched in his lap.
“It’s okay to be nervous, Paulo. I used to get—”
“I’m fine, Dad,” he said, as they pulled down the dirt road to the soccer fields.
“Thanks,” he said, jumping out.
Nuno watched the other boys on the field. No one really looked at Paulo. They were all standing around, talking, laughing with one another. A few of them were kicking the ball around. Nuno wished someone would call out to his son. He had a friend or two here, right?
“Okay,” said Paulo, putting his bag over his shoulder and backing away.
“Well, maybe I’ll stay for a bit,” Nuno said.
“There’s no other parents here,” Paulo said over his shoulder as he walked away, “and Mom promised you wouldn’t. Please don’t, all right? Please?”
Nuno put the car in drive and pulled away.
It was almost eleven. There wouldn’t be a game on at the Lusitania Club until at least one, and that was if he was lucky.
It was dark in the club and the TV was bright. Soccer highlights were on—Portugal in the 1966 World Cup semifinal against England nine years ago. They’d lost. Nuno took his favorite stool, and Luis walked over, holding the newspaper.
“Early!” he said. “Sporting isn’t on ’til one today.”
Nuno shrugged and forced a grin. “How about red?”
He drank gratefully, gazing at the television. Luis walked over and leaned against the bar. “How’s Paulo?”
“Doing good. How’s Kim?”
Luis cleared his throat. “She’s okay.”
Nuno nodded. His wine was nearly gone. Luis was staring at him blankly. Nuno glanced away from him. The night that it had happened, he’d gone to the club to watch Sporting in the UEFA Cup. Luis hadn’t been there, and everyone was drunk, including Kim, who was bartending. After she closed, she led him out to the parking lot, where they started kissing, huddled together in the darkness.
“Let’s go somewhere,” he’d said. They’d ended up at a crappy hotel on a bed with stained sheets, both sneaking home after a few hours to lie about where they’d been.
He noticed how tired Luis looked. “The thing is, Nuno,” he said, “Kim ain’t doing so well.”
Suddenly Nuno remembered the way Kim’s hair smelled like dark rum that night, the way it fell across his face.
Luis stared at the clock above the bar and sighed. “She got cancer.”
“Shit. I’m sorry.”
Nuno’s face felt itchy and hot. Once he’d realized, after it happened, that Kim wasn’t going to tell Luis, he’d been able to relax a little. He still felt terrible. But it was only that one time, and he was drunk. Kim got a job at another bar, and he never saw her anymore. Things happened. He couldn’t go back and fix it.
Nuno nodded. The phone rang in the back room, and Luis put the bottle down next to his glass and walked away.
That night Nuno lay in bed, motionless. During the game, a bunch of guys had come in and they’d stayed out afterward, drinking wine, bullshitting. Dinner had passed by blurrily. Paulo had said he was tired from tryouts and gone to bed early, and there was nothing on TV.
Helena spat into the sink in the bathroom and hummed to herself. Nuno wondered if she was upset about the night before. Maybe she was right, it was a one-time thing. It happened to everyone. She’d acted normal at dinner, but a few times he’d caught her looking at him oddly.
The important thing was to stop thinking about it. But the thought of trying again didn’t excite him like it usually did. It actually made him nervous.
Nuno put his magazine down as she turned off the light on her side. They lay there, not touching. Was she waiting for him, or was she hoping that he didn’t try anything? For a second, Nuno wanted to just walk away. There were three beers left in the fridge. He could sit at the table and wait until she fell asleep, and then tell her he’d been sick.
But then he felt Helena’s breath on his shoulder.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’m not—”
“Shhhh,” she whispered, “stop. Let me help you.”
In a few seconds her mouth was on him. As he reached down to pull her up, because he knew it was no use, Kim flashed into Nuno’s mind. She was bending over the bed, her face turned away.
It felt good. Helena hadn’t done this in years. He didn’t deserve it. He thought of Mateo, wondered with a hazy start if she’d done this to him, but suddenly it didn’t matter. His hand sank into the back of her hair. The darkness was soft and warm and smooth.
“I love you,” Nuno said quietly, when they were finished.
But Helena didn’t hear him. She was already asleep.
Four days later, Nuno was at the club when he decided that it was time to confront Helena. It wasn’t just that he kept imagining her with Mateo It was the idea that she could go on forever not knowing that he knew.
“How’s Kim?” he asked Luis as he stood up to leave.
Luis shook his head and held up his hand.
Walking into the house, Nuno felt a little unsteady. He wondered where Paulo was. He didn’t like him hanging out with Chris; the kid’s parents were hippies and Chris had long hair, wore sunglasses, and was a horrible soccer player. Nuno had seen him tripping all over the place at tryouts last year.
He wasn’t sure why he’d gotten drunk again. Maybe it was being around Luis lately, the way he avoided Nuno’s eyes as he filled his glass. He didn’t look as though he’d been sleeping, and he drifted around the bar in a haze.
When Helena walked in, Nuno was staring out the window and watching the rain. She glared at him, dropped the bag on the counter, then peered back outside.
“C’mon, honey,” she said loudly. “Don’t get wet. Get inside.” She whispered something softly in Portuguese that Nuno couldn’t make out.
“I’m coming,” Paulo said, walking sheepishly. He was soaked, holding his socks and shin guards up against his chest. Helena felt how wet his back was and grimaced. “Go shower, you’ll get sick,” she ordered.
Paulo nodded and ventured a look at Nuno.
“Well? What happened?”
Helena noisily unloaded the bag of groceries onto the table.
“Did you find out?” Nuno asked, standing and extending his arms.
“Yeah,” Paulo said. “I didn’t make it.”
“Shit!” Nuno slammed his hand on the table. “That fucking guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about! Coach Davis—”
“It’s okay, Dad,” called Paulo, escaping upstairs. “It’s cool.”
“No it’s not!” Nuno’s voice was louder than he wanted. “It’s not okay! That’s the problem with you! It’s not okay! If you even cared about it, you’d know—”
“It’s okay, Nuno,” said Helena, stepping in front of him. Her jaw was set and her nostrils flared.
The bathroom door slammed and the shower squeaked on.
“It’s okay,” she said, nodding, her hands on her hips. “There’s next year, right? Vai dar tudo certo.”
Nuno crossed his arms and glared at her. This was it. He’d tell her that he knew about Mateo. That he knew that she’d never truly loved him.
She looked back at him defiantly, her eyebrows raised. Now was the time.
But he couldn’t.
“Certo,” Nuno said finally, quietly, and sat back down.
The fire in Helena’s eyes dimmed. She nodded and walked over to the stove.
Nuno knew at that moment that everything would keep going exactly as it had been in the past. He could almost see the way his life would play out, the way all of their lives would.
And he knew that he would never tell Helena what he’d done.
It was simple. She just didn’t need to know.
BIO: Brian Sousa has published poetry and prose in Precipitate, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Redivider, Gavea-Brown,The Writer magazine, Babilonia, the DMQ Review and others. His fiction is also featured in the Rutgers University Press anthology of Luso-American Literature, 2011, and his first collection of stories, Almost Gone, is due out with UPNE / Tagus Press in March 2013. In 2007, Sousa was awarded a fellowship by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and in 2011, he was a finalist for the Dzanc Books International Literary Award, and winner of a scholarship to the Dzanc Books International Literary Program in Portugal. Sousa, who grew up in the Ocean State of Rhode Island and holds an MFA from Emerson College, currently lives inBoston, and teaches writing at Boston College. He is also an editor and writer for the music and culture website, Mule Variations, and plays guitar in the indie-rock band Ocean*Transfer.