Spring 2016, Volume 20

Fiction by Brian Sousa

Plastic Chairs

(Catarina, 2008)

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?”

“Well, someone.”

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?”

“Jesus, Shannon.”

“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.


—Originally appeared in Volume 13, Fall 2012


BIO: Brian Sousa has published fiction, poetry and prose in a variety of journals, magazines and anthologies. His first collection, Almost Gone, was published in 2013, and he is currently finishing a novel entitled Dreams About Ghosts. Sousa teaches writing at Boston College.