ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 01


Author | Autor: Paloma Vidal

Translated by Hilary Beth Kaplan

Whose skin is this, so pale, these paths of veins, this coat of nearly transparent film? My color drains along the way and I’m more tired than I was during the last departure. Am I losing blood as I walk? I search for the thread of things.
  In a dream, I see my old apartment in Rio de Janeiro. It all looks excessive: how did I amass all these objects? Pieces of furniture big and small, trinkets, rubber ducks, art books, tiny boxes. Vases made of clay and porcelain, a piano, rugs. The memory of that bag lady carrying her life in a shopping cart returns: the gastropod class.
  My new apartment is almost entirely empty. The objects stayed behind and the absolute white of the walls absorbs what little energy I have left. I feel dizzy. My feet are red and bloated when I finally take off my shoes. I lie on my back on the floor and feel each one of my vertebrae. My body is exhausted. How did I get here?
  Officials estimate there are about 850,000 Argentines dispersed throughout the world, says the newspaper. Precise details are unavailable, however, about those who go back and forth as life changes. Individual histories abound but few studies measure emigration with scientific rigor. What is certain, continues the newspaper, is that compared to its neighbor Uruguay, 11% of whose population resides abroad, Argentina, whose expatriate level is just over 2%, need not be concerned by the phenomenon.
  I am alone in a foreign city. He left without a chance for us to say goodbye. I thought I wouldn’t make it, but here I am: I abandoned almost all of our possessions (a heap of objects, his and mine, shadowing me) and took refuge in this apartment.
  How do you tell this story? I start with a phrase that catches my ear as I stroll along the Thames. It is late afternoon and I am walking without a clear destination, near the new Tate Modern. A light rain begins to fall. Two voices follow me, a woman and a young man, in conversation two meters away. Si un día te volvés a la Argentina, says the woman. The language ruptures the landscape. My facial muscles contract and I immediately feel that familiar wrinkle between my eyes. With my fingertips, I smooth it out in a useless exercise of erasure.
  Arriving home, I sit down at the computer and write: leaving once more. I try to remind myself of the first time we went back to Argentina and I realize I have no recollection of this return. Is it possible that it’s erased itself completely from my memory? I was not that young in Christmas of 1980.
  I examine a photo from the time: my mother, my sister and me, posing in a street in Buenos Aires. I don’t remember that particular moment. Memory, a set of faulty gears, swallows the days, the words, the images. But out of the depths of this emptiness, the scenes of another journey emerge.
  I read that bird migration remains a mystery. Some theories contend that birds carry impressions of their birthplaces which cause a persistent urge to return there each spring. One enigmatic and astonishing thing about these long journeys is that some of the young separate from their parents and without any guidance find their way, flying over vast stretches of water. They face countless dangers on these voyages and those who manage to arrive at their destinations bear the scars of the adversities.
  I imagine a plot of departures and from it begin to unfold my tale. Leaving once more, I write, and I realize that pure fantasy, with its infinite possibilities, is on the outskirts of this story. It is real, excavated in books and in memory. I write: I carried wounds across decades, I accumulated remnants of histories, I drained them in the geography of this city. From the sea to the river, from the river to the sea, to the river again, here I arrived, here I am. The journeys begin writing themselves as I yield to a nearly lost voice that is not mine.
  I start to write, trying not to sink too deep in the swamp of family lore. I stick to portraits and a few memories. Most will be invented, in a narrative adventure that pull me from my stupor of the last few months and carries me forward.
  I begin describing my arrival in London. It’s my second time in the city. The first was with a friend when she and I were eighteen, a day’s excursion while we were studying English in Brighton. We meticulously planned the trip with an enthusiasm captured in the photos.
  My favorite has always been one from Russell Square. I’m hugging a tree, a typical adolescent pose, smiling. I gave him this photo soon after we met, probably because it was an image of myself that I rarely succeed in transmitting.
  I also like it for being evidence of the unexpected effects of time: at that moment this square was a discovery in an unknown city. A few years later I would be there nearly every day.
  Across from it is Senate House, an enormous building from the 1930s, a branch of the University of London libraries. Some days I spend hours there, watched over by the books. I never attended this university, and I wouldn’t have access to the library if he hadn’t made the point of getting the ID card I pretend is mine. There’s no risk of being caught; you just swipe the card and wait for the green light.
  I read that the timing and route of bird migration has a strong genetic component, often modified by environmental factors. A bird might change its route due to a geographic obstacle such as a large mountain range, taking a detour that, though advantageous, lengthens its journey by up to 20%. It also happens, however, that some birds follow inherited routes reflecting changes made long ago, which today are far from optimal.
  Leaving was not easy. I took the cat and found a way to call my parents for the cost of a local connection. When I talk to my mother, her voice sounds harsh, as if to admonish me for the unwanted distance. She and my father wish I would come home.
  They don’t understand what I still need to do here, after everything.
  Often, in the middle of the night, I open my eyes with a question: where am I?
  Then I go running toward the door once again. After being surprised so often by my flight, he acquired the habit of holding me every time I shifted in bed, to the extent that I couldn’t turn without him gripping my arm to keep me from escaping.
  My fleeing intensified with the move to London, though I felt very comfortable in the new house, which pleasantly surprised me from the start. I thought I’d find a gray, humid, miniscule place, but the apartment had reasonable dimensions and good light.
  Every room, even the kitchen, had its own generous window.
  The first thing I did on arriving was get a map of the city and find Snowsfields, a small street that comes out of Weston Street and is five minutes from London Bridge. 
  Then I bought a bicycle and learned that the rain is a companion rather than a barrier.
  Even now the city seems immense to me, beyond the scope of my bicycle rides. I know that it remains indecipherable, though I’ve lived in it for years. That it will never be mine. That I will always be a stranger, practically invisible to the indifferent regard of the English.
  As soon as I got here, someone surprised me with the question: what are two Argentines doing living in London? Two Argentines? I come from Rio de Janeiro, I replied a bit awkwardly.
  He came from Buenos Aires. It is his first time outside of Argentina. I’m stunned when he tells me this. Nunca atravesaste la frontera? Never. I look at him as though he were from another planet.He also tells me he lives in the same house where his greatgrandparents lived. My astonishment intensifies. Such continuity still exists in the world?
  I read that migratory behavior is also found in resident birds, which seasonally display the spontaneous urge to migrate. The behavior varies from species to species, but research suggests that the urge is innate, probably inherited from ancestors.
  He was satisfied with his work in Guy’s Hospital, two blocks from our apartment.
  He would leave early in the morning and come home at the end of the day. I would open the door to his tired smile. The possibility of staying a little longer existed, after completing his specialist training, with prospects of a permanent position.
  On this island, thousands of kilometers from his hometown, he hoped to find a lost stability. He hardly spoke of Argentina, but he was very interested in my grandparents’ and my parents’ story: he wanted to understand the reason for their journeys.
  I can’t stop writing. It’s been days since I left the house. I see it drizzling out the window and I feel protected between four walls, under the watchful eye of the cat. In the kitchen, dishes pile up from my last few meals, usually toast and coffee. I eat breakfast throughout the day, as if it were always starting over.
  My photo in Russell Square, in a frame he bought especially for it, was one of the only things I kept from our old apartment. It pains me for being evidence of the unexpected, and shocking, effects of time. I try to write about this pain, but I can’t. It’s not the right time yet.
  He never thought about living abroad. He couldn’t speak a single foreign language. But with the frustration of being a recent graduate in a country that seemed to be giving up on itself, he began to consider the possibility. Why not Brazil? He enrolled in a Portuguese course as a first step.
  A friend from the class took him to see an exhibit in a newly-opened museum of Latin American art. This friend convinced him he’d like the many works by Brazilian artists. Mi angel de la guardia, he later told me.
  He would also tell me about his ignorance before what he sees. The names are strange to him: Tarsila do Amaral, Cândido Portinari, Di Cavalcanti, Hélio Oiticica. Little by little he starts losing interest in the paintings and begins paying attention to two girls talking nonstop in front of the works. One of them is me.
  I don’t remember exactly how he approached us, but when it hit me we had already left the gallery and were making our way towards the entrance, going down the escalator, my friend a few steps above and he just below me, keen to tell me things that might impress me.
  He talks about his Portuguese classes and tries a few phrases to show me his progress is admirable, considering he started the course just a few months ago. I want to take you to a special little corner of the city.   His accent amuses me, as does his not knowing my true origin.
  I stop after writing "true origin." Meeting him shattered this concept. Until then, I’d balanced precariously between two identities, but a balance nevertheless existed: Buenos Aires was a background image and Rio de Janeiro was the foreground, where my life developed into being. When people asked about my nationality, I said I was an impostor Argentine.
  We go into the museum café and he continues talking about his Portuguese course and his desire to live in Brazil, never suspecting that my occasional grammatical slips and the slightly displaced accent porteño, but out-of-date are the result of a life spent almost entirely in the country he longs to know.
It’s only at night, many espressos and a few glasses of wine later, already at his house, that I confess my little secret. He doesn’t believe it. Me estás cargando! I use all my Portuguese to convince him. He insists I tell him how it is to live in another country.
  I’m not sure what to say and I return the inquiry: how is it not to live in another country? Our conversations always came back to this topic. His curiosity surprised me.
  Could it be that my story interested someone? He asked for specifics I usually didn’t know. When did my parents decide to leave? What did they do to get out of the country?
  What was the journey like? Did they speak Portuguese? Suddenly someone had entered my life to voice the questions asleep inside me.
  They remained like this a little longer, asleep under the reversed positions of our initial meeting. Under dozens of daily emails and phone calls where the minutes counted.
  Our subject was being together. Our problem was who would be the adventurer, leaving their things behind.   England emerged as a possible solution to our dilemma: both of us would travel, the adventure would belong to both of us.
  I read that from the scientific point of view spring enchantment is real, at least with respect to birds. It’s the time when they proliferate, as one can easily corroborate in parks, plazas, and countrysides. The spring increase in birds is not just a mere visual impression, but a fact owing to two conditions: it is the procreative period and the time when migratory birds leave places where severe climate makes life difficult.
  Here I have arrived. Signs of autumn already. Three months have passed since the July morning when the news of an attack in the city trapped me at the computer screen.
  That day he hadn’t gone to work. He’d made plans to meet a childhood friend who was passing through London, staying near Russell Square. That day. That hour. 
  Everything seemed unreal. Walking through the city in tumult, I couldn’t make sense of anything I saw. Is it possible? Is such violence possible? Is such vulnerability possible? Is it real? As real as his presence this morning and his absence now, just a few hours later? I walked without stopping, without knowing where to go, I crossed squares and parks, streets and avenues I didn’t recognize, neighborhoods I didn’t even know existed.
  I looked for refuge from the screech of sirens that was everywhere. Is it possible? 
  Is it real? I felt the city about to collapse onto me, until suddenly everything vanished.
  My mind shut down and the next thing I saw was an unknown face mouthing words I couldn’t hear. It was a redheaded woman. She gave me her hand, helped me up and led me to a chair in a dimlylit place.Bit by bit the sounds quieted and then again I heard the terrible blare of sirens outside the pub where the woman had left me.
  What am I doing here? I needed an explanation, but not the one in the papers, the one of the news flashes, the one on the millions of screens spread throughout the city, including in that pub, which incessantly repeated the same scenes, the same phrases, the same names, the same faces, as if everything had been rehearsed, a grand performance with anonymous actors, in which I, an intruder, unwittingly played a part, without knowing how to act, without knowing what to say, without even being able to say one word in the foreign language surrounding me.
  Suddenly, I was condemned to silence, as if my life no longer belonged to me, invaded by something much larger than it, than me, which crossed all borders. In an instant, I had been thrown into the world and made part of a story I never would have imagined as my own.
  How to survive? The question hovers around my every gesture. Leaving once more, I write, and I extract a bit of energy, enough for one more day, from the words arising on the screen. I follow the trail of his questions and yield to the past, to images I never believed were within my reach, as a possible destiny sketches it self, a new geography that will be able to receive me, perhaps another city, another river, much farther south.

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