Translated from the Portugese by Bruna Dantas Lobato
In memory of Rofran Fernandes
I announce adhesiveness—I say it shall be limitless, unloosen’d;
I say you shall yet find the friend you were looking for.
—Walt Whitman, “So Long!”
The truth is, there was no one else around. Months later, not at first, one of them would say that the office was a “desert of souls.” The other one agreed, smiling, proud that he wasn’t included in that description. And little by little, between beers, they came to share sour stories about unloved and hungry women, then soccer banter, secret Santa, wish lists, fortunetellers’ addresses, a bookie, Jogo do bicho, cards for the punch clock, the occasional pastry after work, cheap champagne in plastic cups. In a desert of souls that were also deserts, one special soul immediately recognizes another—maybe for that reason, who knows? But neither of them wondered.
They never used words like special, different, nothing like that. Even though, without effort, they’d recognized each other the moment they met. It’s just that neither of them was prepared to give a name to their emotions, much less to understand them. Not that they were too young, or uneducated, or a bit stupid. Raul was a year older than 30; Saul, a year younger. But the differences between them were not limited to these years, to these words. Raul was coming from a failed marriage, three years and no children. Saul, from an engagement so endless that one day it ended, and a frustrated architecture degree. Maybe for that reason, he drew. Just faces, with huge eyes, no irises or pupils. Raul listened to music, and sometimes, when drunk, he’d pick up the guitar and sing his favorite old boleros in Spanish. And movies, they both liked them.
They’d taken the same entrance exams for the same government office, but that wasn’t when they met. They were introduced on their first day at work. They said, pleased to meet you, Raul, pleased to meet you, Saul, then what’s your name again? smiling at the same time at the coincidence. But discreetly, because they were new at the office and we never know, after all, where we stand. They decided right away that it was best to keep their distance, thinking they should only say the customary hello, how are you, or, at the most, on Fridays, a cordial have a good weekend, then. But from the very beginning something—fate, celestial bodies, luck, who knows?—conspired against (or, why not, in favor of) those two.
Their desks stood next to each other. Nine hours a day, minus one for lunch. And lost in the middle of what Raul (or was it Saul?) would months later call “a desert of souls,” so they wouldn’t feel so cold, so thirsty, or simply because they were human, which didn’t excuse them—or, rather, excused them fully and deeply, in the end: what else was there for those two but, little by little, to grow close, to really get to know one another, to get mixed up? So that’s what happened, so slowly they barely noticed it.
They were a pair of loners. Raul came from the north, Saul came from the south. In that city, everyone came from the north, the south, the middle, the east—meaning that this trivial detail didn’t exactly set them apart. But in the desert around them, everyone else had a point of reference, a wife, an uncle, a mother, a lover. They had no one in that city—or in any other really—besides themselves. I could also say they had nothing, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.
Besides his guitar, Raul had a rented phone, a record player with FM radio, and a thrush in a birdcage called Carlos Gardel. Saul, a color television with a screen burn, sketchbooks, bottles of China ink, and a book of Van Gogh reproductions. In his bedroom at the boarding house, hanging on the wall facing his own bed, another Van Gogh reproduction: the room with the crooked wicker chair, the narrow bed, the hardwood floor. Lying in his bed, Saul sometimes had the impression that the painting was a mirror that showed his own room almost photographically, with nothing missing but himself. It was in moments like these that he’d draw.
They were handsome too, everyone thought so. The women at the office, married, single, got nervous when they arrived, so tall and confident, said one of the assistants, wide-eyed. Unlike the other men, some of whom were even younger, neither of them had the paunch or the downcast posture of someone who stamps and types eight hours a day.
Tan with a bluish beard, Raul was the more fit of the two, with a deep low voice, perfect for the bitter boleros he liked so much. They had the same height, the same gait, but Saul looked smaller, frailer, perhaps because of his little curls, shiny and fair, his frightened eyes, faint blue. They looked beautiful together, young women liked to say. Easy to look at. Without realizing it exactly, when they were together they refined their gait even more, and almost glistened, so to speak, the beauty inside one sparking the beauty outside the other, and vice versa. As if there were, between those two, a strange and secret harmony.
They’d run into each other, quiet but cordial, by the coffee dispenser in the break room, sometimes chatting about the weather or some nuisance at work before returning to their desks. From time to time, one would ask the other for a cigarette, and then would say things like, I want to quit so bad but I’ve never really tried, or I’ve tried so many times, now I’ve given up. It took time, all of this. And it would have taken even longer, because being private like this, almost distant, was something they brought from far away. From up north, from down south.
Until one day Saul arrived late, and, replying to some vague question about what happened, he said that he’d been up all night watching an old movie on TV. Out of politeness, or to fulfill some ritual, or just so he wouldn’t feel bad for coming in at almost 11 o’clock, rushed, his face unshaven, Raul held his fingers over the typewriter and asked: what movie? The Children’s Hour, Saul said softly, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, a very old movie, nobody’s seen it. Raul looked at him slowly, carefully, what do you mean nobody’s seen it? I’ve seen it and I like it a lot. Uneasy, he invited Saul out for coffee and, on that very cold morning in June, in that ugly building that looked more than ever like a police station or a psychiatric hospital, they talked incessantly about the film.
Many other movies would come in the following days, and so smoothly, as if somehow this was inevitable. Personal stories would also come, pasts, some dreams, small hopes, and above all complaints. About that office, that life, that knot, they confessed one gray Friday afternoon, tight against the chest. That weekend, for the first time, they wished secretly, the one in his studio apartment, the other at the boarding house, that Saturday and Sunday would pass swiftly, that the days would quickly turn the corner of midnight to arrive faster on Monday, when they’d finally meet: for coffee. So it was, one saying that he’d had too much to drink, the other that he’d slept almost the entire time. Those two talked about so many things that Monday morning, many things except for the absence they barely knew they felt.
The thoughtful women in the office planned the weekly happy hour at the bars, gafieiras, clubs, parties in somebody’s apartment, then in somebody else’s. At first reluctant, they eventually gave in, though they’d almost always hide in the corners or on the balcony to tell their endless stories. One night, Raul found a guitar and sang “Tú Me Acostumbraste.” And Saul had too much to drink and puked in the bathroom. On their way to their separate cabs, Raul talked for the first time about how his marriage had come undone. With unsteady steps, Saul told him about his past engagement. And they agreed, drunk, that they were both tired of all the women in the world, their complicated plots, their petty demands. That they preferred this, now, alone, owning their own lives. Even though, and this they didn’t say, they didn’t know what to do with them.
The next day, hungover, Saul didn’t show up at work nor did he call. Restless, Raul spent the day wandering through the cold and deserted halls, softly singing “Tú Me Acostumbraste” between countless cups of coffee and half a pack of cigarettes more than he usually smoked.
The weekends became so long that one day, in the middle of some conversation, Raul gave Saul his phone number, call if you need something, if you get sick, you never know. On a Sunday afternoon, Saul called just to ask what the other one was doing, and paid him a visit, and they ate dinner together, a very nice home-cooked meal the maid had prepared the previous day. It was then that they spoke, united in their sourness, of the desert of the souls. They’d known each other for nearly six months. Saul got along with Carlos Gardel, who rehearsed a shy performance at nightfall. But Raul was the one who sang: “Perfídia,” “La Barca,” and, at Saul’s request, “Tú Me Acostumbraste,” once more, twice. Saul especially liked that little part that went like this, sutil llegaste a mí como una tentación llenando de inquietud mi corazón. They played a few games of buraco, and at around nine, Saul left.
On Monday, they didn’t say a word about the day before. But they talked more than ever and went to the café many times. The young women around them liked to pry, and sometimes whispered, though the two of them never noticed. That week, they had lunch together for the first time at Saul’s boarding house. Saul wished he could take Raul up to his room to show him his drawings; visitors weren’t allowed at night, but now it was already five to two and the punch clock at work was ruthless. It was around that time that they began to leave and arrive together, usually very happy. Shortly after that, Raul sneaked into the boarding house, a bottle of brandy in his coat pocket, Sandra as an excuse, which they then watched on Saul’s TV. Sitting on the floor, backs against the narrow bed, they could barely pay attention to the movie. They couldn’t stop talking. While singing “Io Che Non Vivo,” Raul noticed the drawings. Later, looking longingly at the Van Gogh reproduction, he asked how Saul could live in such a small room. He looked genuinely worried. Isn’t it sad? he asked. Saul smiled hard: you get used to it.
Now Saul always called on Sundays. And came to see him. They’d have dinner or lunch, drink, smoke, talk the entire time. While Raul sang—sometimes “El Día Que Me Quieras,” sometimes “Noche de Ronda”—Saul would slowly caress Carlos Gardel’s little head, perched on his index finger. Sometimes they looked at each other. And always smiled. One night, because it was raining, Saul ended up sleeping on the couch. The next day, they arrived together at the office, hair wet from the shower. The young women didn’t talk to them. The paunchy and downcast men exchanged a few looks that neither of the two would understand, if they even noticed. But they didn’t notice a thing, not the looks, not the few jokes. At 10 to six, they left together, tall and confident, to watch the latest Jane Fonda movie.
At the beginning of spring, it was Saul’s birthday. Because Raul thought his friend was too lonely, or for some other reason like that, Raul gave him the birdcage with Carlos Gardel. Then at the
beginning of summer, it was Raul’s turn. Because Saul didn’t have any money and the walls of his friend’s studio were bare, Saul gave him his Van Gogh reproduction. But between those two birthdays, something happened.
Up north, in early December, Raul’s mother died and he had to leave town for a week. Disoriented, Saul wandered the halls of the office, waiting for a phone call that didn’t come, trying to no avail to focus on the dispatches, processes, protocols. At night, in his room, he’d turn on the TV and pass the time with cheap soap operas or draw eyes that grew bigger and bigger, while caressing Carlos Gardel. He drank a lot that week. And had a dream: he was walking among his colleagues, all in black, reproachful. Except for Raul, all in white, waiting for him with open arms. Then, holding each other tight, and so close that one could smell the other. Saul woke up thinking he should be the one grieving.
Raul came back griefless. On a Friday afternoon, he called the office to ask Saul to come see him. His deep, low voice sounded even lower, deeper. Saul went. Raul’s beard had grown. Strangely, he didn’t look older or harsher but instead had the face of a boy. They had too much to drink that night. Raul talked about his mother for a long time; I could have been nicer to her, he said, and didn’t sing. When Saul was about to leave, he started to cry. Before he knew what he was doing, Saul stretched out his hand, and only then realized his fingers had touched Raul’s unshaven face. With no time to understand it, they held each other tight. And so close, one could smell the other: Raul, wilted flower, musty drawer; Saul, aftershave balm, talcum powder. A long time passed. Saul’s hand touching Raul’s beard, Raul’s fingers in Saul’s little curls. No words. In the silence, they could hear a faucet dripping in the distance. So much time passed that when Saul finally reached for the ashtray, his cigarette was just a long stick of ash which he crushed without realizing.
They stepped away from each other, then. Raul said something like, I have nobody else in the world, and Saul said something else like, you have me now, and forever. They used big words—nobody, world, forever—and held both hands at once, looking into each other’s eyes, full of smoke and alcohol. Even though it was Friday and they didn’t have work in the morning, Saul said goodnight. He walked for hours through the deserted streets, no one around but cats and hookers. At home, he caressed Carlos Gardel until they fell asleep. But before that, not knowing why, he broke down crying, feeling alone and poor and ugly and unfortunate and confused and abandoned and drunk and sad, sad, sad. He thought of calling Raul, but he didn’t have any quarters and it was late.
Christmas arrived, then they spent New Year’s Eve together, declining their colleagues’ invitations. Raul gave Saul a reproduction of The Birth of Venus, and he put it up on the wall precisely where Van Gogh’s room had been. Saul gave Raul The Greatest Hits of Dalva de Oliveira. They listened to “Nossas Vidas” over and over, paying close attention to the part that said something like even our kisses feel like the kisses of those who’ve never loved.
It was on the night of the 31st, champagne already open in Raul’s apartment, when Saul raised his glass and toasted, to our friendship, which will never ever end. They drank until near-collapse. Before going to bed, while changing clothes in the bathroom, very drunk, Saul said he was going to sleep naked. Raul looked at him and said, Your body is beautiful. So is yours, said Saul, and lowered his eyes. They both lay naked, one on the bed behind the dresser, the other on the couch. The entire night, one could see the blazing ember of the other’s cigarette, piercing the darkness like a demon’s burning eye. In the morning, Saul left without a word. Raul wouldn’t notice the deep circles under his eyes.
When January came around, it was almost time to go on vacation—and they’d planned, together, perhaps Parati, Ouro Preto, Porto Seguro. They were surprised one morning when their boss called them into his office, right before noon. It was very hot. The boss, sweaty, got straight to the point. He’d received some anonymous letters. He refused to show them. Pale, they listened to phrases like “unusual and obtrusive relationship,” “shameless aberration,” “insalubrious behavior,” “mental defect,” always signed by An Attentive Guardian of Morals. Saul lowered his faint eyes, but Raul stood up. He looked even taller, with one hand on his friend’s shoulder and the other boldly raised in the air. He still managed to say the word never, before the boss, inserted among comments like “our-office’s-reputation,” said coldly: you two are fired.
They slowly emptied each of their drawers, the room deserted at lunchtime, without exchanging a glance. It was summer. The sun burned the metal tables. Raul put into a big brown envelope two huge eyes, no irises or pupils, a gift from Saul, who put into his own big brown envelope, with coffee stains, the lyrics to “Tú Me Acostumbraste,” handwritten by Raul on an August afternoon. They took the elevator together, in silence.
But when they walked out the door of that big, old building, as dull as a hospital or a police station, their colleagues observing them from a window up above, one in a white shirt, the other in blue, they were even taller and more confident. They stood for a few minutes before the building. Then they hailed a cab together, Raul opening the door for Saul. Ai ai, someone yelled from the window. But they didn’t hear it. The cab had already turned the corner.
For the rest of that month, on dusty afternoons, when the sun looked like a giant yolk in the cloudless sky, no one managed to get any work done at the office. Nearly all of them had the distinct feeling they would live unhappily ever after. And they did.
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