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from the May 2006 issue

The Man with the Long Mustache

Ever since I can remember, I've loved to watch people who pass by me on the street. I inherited this habit from an aunt who suffered serious injuries in a car accident when I was four years old, and was never able to walk again. Due to her condition, she didn't have much else to do besides sit in her wheelchair and read a book or observe the people who passed by her front porch. I picked up this practice of hers. And so I began to spend my days watching the people who were walking downtown, attempting to discover who they were, what they did, and where they would be going, etc. My mother never got used to this "eccentricity" - as she called it - and at different times she stopped me from people watching on the bench in the Osório Plaza. At this age, I had to leave the house secretly and not stay in one place for too long so as not to run the risk of getting caught by her. To throw her off, I would follow people, like a detective, without them catching on that I was behind them and without my mom catching me. I was like one of the many men in Poe's tales, or a flâneur of Baudelaire. But, seeing that I was getting older, my mom stopped pestering me and in turn I established watch-spots on the busier streets in the city of Curitiba. I can't explain exactly why I like to do this, and, to be genuinely honest, many times I've wanted to give up this lifestyle - a few times I was certain - but when I realized that I couldn't control my impulses, I stopped fighting it. It's been almost thirty years that I have been going downtown religiously, almost everyday, at five o'clock in the afternoon. If, for the English this hour is reserved for tea, for me it is the hour to immerse myself in the imagined lives of the citizens of Curitiba. This is the only vice I have - the fact that I smoked a joint or two everyday when I was a teenager doesn't really count, that was just a phase - the streets still fill me, still embrace me, still imprison me; a vice in it's truest form. Oh, I almost forgot one important detail that could yet still make this story more difficult to understand: I am only satisfied with observing people in Curitiba! It doesn't matter if they are from here or not - because I'm the one who invents their lives - but it has to be here. This detail, naturally, is only an issue when I travel. The solution I found is to film the people on the street and to take the videos with me - this explains the "almost" , emphasized above. When the habitual time comes around, I watch them. I traveled a lot when I was younger. I don't travel anymore. I got married. My wife only discovered this aspect of my life the week of our wedding. This was after one year of being engaged. The only condition that she had was that the ceremony had to be held in June, because she had promised Saint Anthony that when she found a husband, she would get married on June 13th - the day of this saint. I had no problem with the principle of it, if it weren't for the time that she promised that Saint: five o'clock in the afternoon! At this point in my life, I was twenty-four years old and the habit of observing people on the streets of Curitiba had surpassed an innocent vice: it was now an obsession vital to my existence. I needed to watch people and imagine their lives, and it always had to be at five o'clock in the afternoon! I really had to reveal this problem of mine to my wife, or, that is to say, my way of being different. When I told her, she found it a little unusual and even suggested that I go to the doctor to take care of this*Š issue. But in the end, I convinced her that it was actually normal, that I had observed people in the streets since I was a kid and I've never had a problem. This wasn't without her asking me why I hadn't told her before. It is so normal for me, I didn't see a reason why I needed to tell you, dear. Don't worry about it, okay? But deep down, I knew that it wasn't normal and that it was becoming an illness. She made me look for a good psychiatrist to help me with "my little problem". But I didn't go.

I think I got a little frustrated with how my future wife accepted everything so easily. I expected a stronger reaction from her. We decided to get married in a picturesque church in the center of the city - I don't remember the name, but I know that it was really beautiful - with the altar facing the street. That way, I could swear fidelity and eternal commitment to my wife having at the same time the ability to watch those who passed by.

Throughout these years, many characters passed through my line of vision, and thousands of stories were created for them. All different types: men who appeared to be drunks could be seen in my imagination as successful entrepreneurs who decided to indulge themselves with the pleasures of alcohol after a hard day at work. Or maybe there were extremely sober men who used to be drunkards but became ashamed of their ways and resolved to take a shower, shave, and look for a job. Or even women who seemed timid at first could, in reality, lead promiscuous lives away from their husbands. La belle du jour. After all, anything was possible, and this was my necessity: invent lives and situations, but just with the people on the streets of Curitiba. And what, you ask, about my wife? After two years of marriage, something began to bother me: even though she said that she completely accepted this lifestyle, I perceived that she didn't really like five o'clock in the afternoon, when I left to create these stories. She would say good-bye and head to the kitchen with her head down. She would always fix dinner, but never eat with me because she went to bed before I got home. With time I began to notice a progressive change in her attitude: when the time came to leave she didn't seem upset anymore, on the contrary, she would open the door happily, give me a thousand kisses, and tell me that she loved me, that she would wait to have dinner with me... Bye, honey. Good luck. I began to hear a little voice in my head that told me something was strange, but as soon as I got downtown, I ended up forgetting quickly. After a few more months, I got used to my wife's new attitude. And that is how my life was. My vice, even though it had become something I couldn't control, still hadn't affected my psyche drastically. It had transformed itself into a habit. Like any habit, it was mechanical. As it was, I would go out onto the street and people watch like I would brush my teeth or take a shower: naturally. It was excessively normal.

That was until one day at five o'clock in the afternoon I saw a man with a long moustache - like the one Paulo Leminsky had, you know? - who called my attention for some reason. I thought maybe it was for the fact that his face seemed strangely familiar. I hadn't followed behind anyone since I was ten years old, I had only stayed seated in Osório Plaza. Yet that day - and I was about twenty-seven years old at the time - I couldn't help myself. Truthfully, I didn't really want to help myself: I got up and began to follow in his footsteps, taking that same old caution to not let my "victim" discover that I was close behind - like a detective. His face, even though I couldn't figure out what it was at that point, really had something familiar about it. I imagined: his name was Christopher, he was thirty-two years old and was in a hurry because he had just stolen a book from the Chain bookstore. It was an Italian book entitled Nocturnal Indian by Tabucchi. He hid it inside his bag with a bunch of chocolate bars of Lacta that he took from the convenience store right before he stole the book. He was wearing a handsome grey suit from Giorgio Armani so as not to arouse suspicion to his whereabouts, but in reality, that also had been stolen. I feel like I know him. But from where? I continued following Christopher. He stopped in a few women's clothing stores on 15th street - maybe to pocket nighties for his girlfriend - and stopped in various music stores and, finally, entered the Curitiba Shopping Mall. He headed straight for the bathrooms. How strange, he's going into the women's bathroom! Maybe I should call security. And that's what I did, I created epic chaos in the shopping mall: I got the security to go in after the man in the women's bathroom. But the problem is that I think I got mixed up between reality and fantasy: this man, who, instead of having the name Christopher and being a thief, could be an upstanding citizen and have any ordinary name. Also, he could've simply entered the women's bathroom by mistake. The life I created for him had become reality to me. And would you believe what happened? They couldn't find the man with a long moustache dressed in Giorgio Armani. He had disappeared. Could it be that it was just my imagination? Where did he go? Even until today, almost three years later, I can't figure out what happened. That man has passed by me many times since then, but he disappears soon after he shows up. And there is another thing that didn't sit right with me the day I first saw him: I ran into my wife leaving the bathroom moments before the security went in. She was completely shocked when she saw me, seemed to not know what to do with herself, and tried unsuccessfully to hide a bag behind her back. She explained to me that she went out to buy lingerie for our anniversary that was coming up, and also took advantage of the sale that the bookstore was having and bought an Antonio Tabucchi book for me. That was uncanny: she bought the same objects that I imagined the man bought! And what was more was that my wife was there: she never left the house that hour, especially not to buy lingerie and books. She always waited for me at home. She was afraid to leave the house at night! But it isn't everyday that women buy lingerie. Only for special occasions. And from what I could tell, this was a special occasion. Don't worry too much about the fact that your wife was at the mall at the same time, you only need to worry about the man who only you seemed to see. At least that is what the doctor told me the next day in his office. I went to the psychiatrist. He prescribed some medicine for me. He thought that I was having more problems than just inventing tales for people I saw on the street. I didn't really pay much attention then. That happened three years ago. I don't take medicine anymore. And do you know who I saw yesterday (at five o'clock pm) and followed for a few minutes? The man with the long moustache! My wife, like before, appeared soon after he disappeared, and again used a similar excuse. But this time, I tried to follow him. I couldn't find him. I can't figure out why he disappears so mysteriously every time I see him. And why is it only with him? Is it because his face is so familiar? Who could he be? Last night, after seeing him, I thought for a minute that I should stop observing people downtown. I feel so nervous and oddly intrigued every time I see him. But a desire to stop isn't enough to quit, I just can't rid myself of this. If I could at least talk with him, but every time I try to get close he disappears! But, this morning, I woke up with an incredible urge to go downtown. I spent the day counting down the minutes till five o'clock in the afternoon. When it was only a few minutes away, I left the house. And as has been her custom these past few years, my wife seemed happy. She opened the door.

Good luck, dear.

Yeah, I'll need all the luck I can get to try and talk to this guy with the moustache.

Are you sure that you don't need my help, love?

I'm sure, thanks.

I looked up at the dark and heavy clouds and realized I needed to hurry to make it to Osório Plaza before it began to rain. This indecisive climate of Curitiba of rain/no rain could get in the way of my search - but that doesn't matter really, if I don't find him today, he'll reappear another day. What clichéd optimism! It began to rain. I stayed underneath the overhead awnings of the stores, running into people as I walked. I passed many characters of my tales. Some had been aware of me for years, others had come to live in my inventions without so much as ever having seen me. I kept on walking through the crowd of people. Two boys who were completely soaked by the rain ran past me, spraying drops of water and receiving curses from the pedestrians who, without success, tried to stay dry. I continued walking. I looked at my watch. I felt distressed. It's five o'clock. However, even though I was walking I began to satisfy myself with inventions and fantasies. A woman was walking very slowly in front of me. Soon I thought: She doesn't want to arrive home too early because she knows that when her husband leaves work he'll go to a bar, get drunk and start hitting her again - griping about the cold food on the table. This had already become a staple in her life. Joanna couldn't take these moods of her husband anymore, but yet she still loved him. The man to the side of me was in a rush because he needed to run to pick up his kids from school and after had to go to the bakery to buy some milk and bread. This man led a happy life with his wife and children.

It stopped raining and I kept on walking. I saw a commotion on the corner. I was able to get close to it. There I witnessed a horrific scene: those boys that ran by me when it was raining were lying on the ground, one on top of the other, covered in blood. Curious onlookers all around elbowed each other, trying to see and make sense of what had happened: they were hit by a car! The car was smoking. My car! At first I couldn't identify who was inside it. But (I thought) it had to be my wife. Yes, it was her. But she wasn't alone. Suddenly, I realized that besides her there was one more person inside the car, yet I still couldn't see the face. There were a lot of people blocking me. Without slowing down and filled with desperation, I pushed through the crowd and I saw him: he was wearing my clothes. I knew him: it was the man with the long moustache. I looked straight into his eyes and it hit me: My God, this man.... this man is me! Searching frantically, I looked for my wife: she was practically collapsing on the ground, sobbing by the side of the boy's lifeless bodies. Dear-her voice was choked from tears-We killed two kids!

I turned back to the man, and he was gone.

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