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from the August 2013 issue

from “underwater snooker”

It’s like taking your skates off after hours rolling about and finding that your feet and the ground no longer understand each other. You want to glide, float past people and things, but you can’t. So you think, OK, let’s get on with it, walking it is, one foot after the other please, but even so it takes a while to come together, because you’ve still got your skates on, in a sense. The brain says Walk, the feet say Skate. And if someone should come across you on the street they’d probably think: poor lad’s got a big problem! Which is why I am increasingly less fond of people and more of Antônia, who used to say that the world was like a crowd fresh out of the opticians, still under the effects of the dilating drops: the eyes filled with more light than they can take, and so all we see is a haze. More light, more darkness. I know what it’s like, because I take my annual shot at reading those tiny letters that tell me my myopia is advancing symmetrically, though one eye seems much worse than the other to me (Antônia puts her hand over my left eye and asks if I can see the boat over the other side of the lake). But the true purpose of my glasses is to be incessantly taken off and wiped clean with the end of my T-shirt, as I don’t smoke and have to have something to do with my hands, always, like plucking leaves from trees as I walk by or picking up pebbles from the street and throwing them somewhere else, or pulling the plastic labels off water bottles, or even folding up receipts, ATM slips, or tickets like the one in my hand, right now, which I would fold a thousand times, if I could, to the edge of oblivion. 

One night, two months ago, Camilo rolled a piece of paper into a ball and threw it out the window, but given my dazed state at the time, more so than the myopia, I didn’t see exactly where it landed. That’s why I took so long rummaging about on the sidewalk, one of those with irregularly shaped paving stones and moss growing in between, the kind you find in all neighborhoods where few feet ever walk, and I remember feeling that the stone was cold and damp, and I remember hearing birdsong, and thinking that there must be some bird specialized in nocturnal singing, and it gave me the willies. But as I thought that, for the first time, right at that very moment, a doubt arose. Had they always given me the willies? I couldn’t say for sure. Sometimes they sang and I barely even noticed. They must have done so on countless nights. What an animal does one day, it generally does all the rest. Birds provide our background music.

So there was this chirping, a sonorous signal, almost an alarm call with all the startling regularity of nature, and then I found the paper ball. I opened it in a hurry and read: drop by when you can. I looked up and was about to nod that, sure, I’d drop by (when I could), but there was no one in the window. That was the last time I came here, before now. I didn’t know what to say to Camilo, with whom I’d never exchanged more than a half-dozen sentences, and anyway, when-you-can is a little vague as a notion of time. Did it mean: when I’m not busy doing something else? In which case, I never really was particularly busy. But if it meant when I was psychologically ready, then that was different, because I suspect two months isn’t long enough, and here I am holding this ticket folded to breaking point, folded until it looks like a little shack. They say the maximum you can fold a piece of paper in half is six times, but I saw this TV show that proved that wasn’t exactly true. That is, they tested the theory with a sheet of paper the size of a soccer pitch, which somewhat strained the bounds of good sense, and if I’m not mistaken they only stopped folding because they were tired of walking from one end to the other, taking special care not to tear I’m not sure how many kilos’ worth of paper. And they probably had to move on to the next myth to be tested and debunked, given all the crap we tend to believe in.

It’s a beautiful sunny day, with boats here and there, but I turn away from the lake toward a salmon-colored house. I see that it’s falling apart. I can almost sense the layers of grime building up on the walls, the result of a chain of events: torrential rain one day, a cat that dislodges a roof tile the next, which falls, taking a wedge of plaster with it, tumbling into some tall, uncut grass, which attracts insects, whose remains now litter the bottom of the swimming pool. It’s like seeing a flower open and close in ten seconds of sped-up footage. But I think when-you-can doesn’t have to be today, or at least not necessarily now. I cross a carless street and head for Polaco’s bar. There’s no one in this part of town at this time of a weekday afternoon, except for the guys in their boats, some nearby, hanging around the boathouse, others farther away, but never many, because the lake isn’t exactly the prettiest thing in the world. I mean, we’d all like it to be at least a little bluer. Lakes are supposed to be blue, not brown, and people love blue, it’s most people’s favorite color, because of the sky and water (not this water, obviously), and I saw that in a documentary too, which is what I usually watch before bed. Anyway, the bar is only opening, a bar I’ve been in a million times, sitting and chatting as I tear up beer labels or try to make roses out of napkins, or standing out in the street with wine in a plastic cup, or playing snooker down the back in what you could say is a parlor literally built in the water, continuously pissing the council off for the last twenty years. But it’s beautiful as hell. From the outside, I see the water lapping against the concrete walls, the sun shimmering in the small blue and green windows or streaming through holes that once held blue or green glass. 

Polaco is setting out the last table on the sidewalk. It’s a cramped space, only big enough for three. I approach, and he looks at me, but seems none too happy to see me. In fact, I get the impression that seeing me is the last thing Polaco would have wanted this afternoon. I catch the discomfort in his eyes and note the wrinkles on his forehead, crumpled like paper. He says Bernardo, hi, which is very different to saying Hi, Bernardo. He probably thinks it´s too soon. He goes on with the tables, folding out one chair, then fetching another. The grating of metal on metal intersperses his hi and mine. When he comes back, I order a beer and go sit in front of the lake, which means with my back to the house. Two months ago I was intent on going in, but they were intent on not letting me. I wonder what kind of movement or reclusion Polaco has observed, with his red eyes, because he seemed to have really liked Antônia, as he carries his filthy white table rag, wiping away the wet rings left behind by the glass ends as they’re shuffled about.

I move mine over and over, until I’ve left two Olympic symbols on the table, but even so Polaco doesn’t come near. I see that he’s behind the counter scraping the hot plate clean, and then I notice two verses of T. S. Eliot scribbled on my table in red CD marker. In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo. Antônia reckoned they were fat ladies, though nothing of the kind is said in the poem, but she was sure they were fat women visiting the Louvre. And I feel like crying again. 

I don’t have to be here, because I live over the other side of town. In fact, I didn’t even have to come down to the lake. Everything usually happens far from here, where there are lawyers, doctors, florists, Italian and Thai food, where there are roads with junctions, and sidewalks with trash cans and the apartments my friends like to rent. All kilometers away. It’s the people from here who have to go there. In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo is the same as saying that, before we cared less about looking as smart as we thought we were, even before we went rummaging through the second-hand bookstores for ’50s pornos, we had to make a presentation at Literary Studies 1, and I was Mister Prose and she was Miss Poetry. We had to spend six and a half minutes destroying each other before classmates who didn’t even like reading prose or poetry, and the professor sat there hiccupping with laughter during the presentation, which was as good as saying Nice try, but it all sounds ridiculous, which was the same as saying it was ingenious. 

I would like to interject here: Antônia, remember when we were the ingenious Mister Prose and Miss Poetry? By which I mean I’m devastated. And also, most of all: did you forget you’re supposed to slow down going downhill? Because it’s on the hills that we feel life a little more than we should, and it can get us killed? 

From Sinuca embaixo d'água (Companhia das Letras, 2009). © Carol Bensimon. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2013 by Anthony Doyle. All rights reserved.

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