I am what I am and Salazar can go fuck himself. A dictator rules Portugal almost half a century, almost another half century passes since his death, and then he appears in my life. Suddenly it was as if he’d been here all along, in charge of everything, I could not let that happen.
It was five months before the night of the big storm when the hospital called about Gran, but I feel like that was the moment when Salazar started insinuating himself into my life.
At the hospital, Mother kept saying, My mother-in-law always had her head screwed on right, I don’t know how this happened. It was not a secret to anyone that Mother did not like Gran, Our saints don’t get on well, she would explain when she was in a good mood, at other times she would resort to berating her, May a lightning bolt strike the old woman, let her die far away and see if I care. But, at the hospital, Mother’s concern appeared to be sincere and it was surprising to see her struggling to accept that, at 81 years of age, Gran might have gone off the rails like that. It can’t be, my mother-in-law can’t be perfectly well one moment and then like this the next, she pleaded with the doctor, as if making a show of her disbelief might allow her to magically understand what was going on. Politely ignoring Mother’s remarks, the doctor turned to me and asked, Did you notice your grandmother behaving unusually before this episode? Episode, that was the word the doctor used to describe an event as unusual as Gran leaving home in her nightgown and her Sunday shoes, and walking around Cascais, before falling and gashing her head open at the souvenir shop on Rua Direita, and then being all tearful when Mother and I arrived at the hospital. We found her on a stretcher, her head wound already covered in a white bandage. Restless and anxious, she insisted on going into the capital. What’s wrong with her, she always hated Lisbon, Mother noted with alarm. Do you think she drank something by mistake? I don’t think that’s what happened, the doctor replied. He was young, with a flat voice and an expensive aftershave. Mother smelled of the cheap scented water she bought by the half-litre at the pharmacy on Rua da Polícia, enough to fill twice the bottle of Bien-être that she kept on the chest of drawers in her bedroom. I would recognise anywhere in the world that mix of synthetic lavender and lemon given off by Mother, her shaved armpits, the folds of her tummy, her fleshy thighs. I would recognise anywhere in the world the smell of those evenings when I fell asleep on her lap while watching television.
God knows what else she’ll do next, Mother worried, which was unusual for her, since, unlike Gran, Mother never wanted anything to do with God. What misfortune awaits us now, she worried, raising her eyebrows like the heroines in photonovels do at moments of concern or anxiety. If there was anything Mother was proud of it was her photonovels. She had them bound, with red and gold covers, in volumes of ten, and would display them on the pine bookshelf that she bought at the second-hand furniture store when we moved to Gran’s house. How does someone end up like that, Mother asked, as troubled as I was. She was referring to the distress that had taken over Gran, Get me out of here, get me out of here, take me to Lisbon, she begged and shouted, while trying to take off her hospital gown and rip out the needle that connected her to the drip.
She tore off the gown before we could stop her, revealing herself naked, unconcerned by modesty, pink nipples cresting the trembling breasts, a perfect triangle of grey hair covering her groin, very pale skin lined with the same wrinkles she had on her hands and neck, like an ancient piece of pottery gently worked over by time, a body in which everything seemed to be proportionate and casually delicate. I had never seen Gran naked. Except for her face and hands, her body had always been hidden beneath layers of black, black skirt, black nightdress, black stockings and shoes. When I was a girl, I imagined she was like those mannequins from the bridal store Mother worked at, a plastic body onto which someone had attached an old head and hands. At some point I became convinced that that was exactly what Gran wanted us to believe, such were the lengths she went to in order to conceal her body. The mournfulness, the somberness and the severity with which she always dressed and behaved had not covered up her beauty, but only now, seeing her undressed, did I realise that in fact they had managed to conceal the alluring woman she had undoubtedly been. For Gran, nudity was the devil’s temptation, like almost everything else in life, the devil was tireless in his trickeries, and Gran needed to be even more tireless in her vigilance. Come here, Eliete, she called out to me one afternoon, a time I keep entire and intact in my mind. I was passing by the kitchen, on my way to the garden to cool off with the hosepipe, wearing the swimsuit Mother had bought me at the market, a swimsuit with white stars on a blue background. Come here, Eliete, you are a young woman now, you mustn’t be going around like that. Gran was sitting on a dark wooden stool by the door to the porch shelling broad beans, her hands still untouched by the age that would make them fragile and hesitant, Senhor Pereira on the other side of the house, locked away in the office as usual, and Mother at work, a late afternoon train-and-bus ride away. In my hand, the orange cotton towel that I would stretch out on the concrete slab, my rocky island in the middle of the garden.
The long holiday afternoons were so slow that they melded into each other, becoming a single invincible afternoon. In my small world, changes always led, incessantly, to new beginnings, pomegranate flowers announced the end of summer, winter light gilded the kaki fruits, oranges ripened and were turned into the marmalade that Gran kept in jars in the pantry labelled bitter orange, ants marched in single files, birds huddled in tree branches. In the morning the sun shone into Gran’s bedroom and in the afternoon it napped in my room and in Mother’s, at night the moon went wherever it wanted to.
Standing up, tightening every muscle in my little body, I would put the end of the green hosepipe against my head, waiting for the cold water to come out of the earth’s bowels and run riot over my body. To release me from the spell of the never-ending afternoon, my body would start moving of its own accord. Fame I’m gonna live forever, I would hear myself singing from within my swimsuit with its white stars, my feet muddy, Fame I’m gonna live forever. I knew no English, life was yet unable to offer anything other than the childhood I would never be free from.
I would let the cold water run over my body, the skin on my hands wrinkling and my lips turning purple, Just a little more, just a little more, the cold water spilling from the earth’s bowels until I was unable to breathe. The longer I could withstand it, the greater the pleasure of lying down on the towel spread over the concrete slab, Just a little more, I would say to myself, just a little more. The heat in the slab warmed my body, one pore at a time, and tamed it, made it submissive once again. I would open my eyes, attentive to the forming and unravelling of clouds, seeking out the shape of animals, a dolphin wrapping itself around a tiger’s head before stretching into the form of a snake, a sky not yet crisscrossed by airplane trails, an endless and scattered world. Come here, Eliete.
The blue ceramic bowl almost filled with little green kidneys, Gran not even raising her eyes, her fingers intent on bursting open the bean pods that piled up on newspaper sheets, and which we would chop up and throw into the chicken coop, built out of wire fencing and a corrugated tin roof between the garage and the wall at the back of the garden. A decent girl cannot walk around the house like that, she can’t be showing others what belongs to her future husband. Gran seemed to have no greater ambition than to tame my flesh and my soul. You don’t want to be like one of the others, do you? The others, the sluts, the ones who, having lost their way, were condemned to the hell of eternally grinding teeth and flames taller than mountains, the skanks, the ones I would be secretly envying soon. At that point, I no longer worried about the details of Gran’s stories, I no longer quizzed her about how God decides who to please if I prayed for sunshine but she prayed for rain, I knew her answer by heart, It is not you asking those questions, it is the devil himself. Gran then explained that the devil made us doubt that God would, in time, reveal everything that needed to be revealed, and the proof that God would not abandon us was in the stories of miracles told at mass. Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, the manna from heaven as the chosen people crossed the desert, Elijah fed by ravens, the fall of the walls of Jericho, in due course God would supply for all my needs. Apparently, the delay between the moment when I expressed a need and the moment it was satisfied was one of God’s ways of testing my faith.
But that afternoon neither I nor the devil asked any questions. We both knew my body had changed and that it was dragging me helplessly along. The change had started quietly with the two fleshy bumps growing on my skinny chest, two fleshy bumps that I tried to smother against the mattress, always sleeping face-down, two fleshy bumps that ached close to my heart and that boys made fun of, Stop the ball with your chest, Eliete, just don’t puncture it, the boys played with their flat chests, dreaming of Maradona, Platini, Rummenigge and other names that took up all their conversations. I could have coped with the boys’ laughter if the fleshy bumps had not been followed by the shame of the dark hair between my legs and in my armpits, of my thighs filling out the denim trousers like legs of ham, of the smelly grown up sweat that I covered up with the deodorant Mother bought at the same pharmacy as her fake Bien-être, an aerosol that caused my armpits to itch.
Come here, Eliete. I knew nothing was the same in my body, that blood had started to come out from within, thick and dark blood that forced me to use sanitary pads every month. Above all I was afraid of someone noticing I was using the pads, that the boys would start with their teasing. Benfica is playing in her red kit, or Run away, there’s a red tide today! The boys guffawing through crooked teeth yet to find found their right place, their faces nicked by shaving blades that seemed to cut through more pimples than hairs. The shame of them knowing that I used pads added to my fear of the disgusting blood staining my clothes, the new and humiliating habit of having to sneak into toilets to change the pad and the various precautions I was suddenly forced to take. To never, under any circumstance, leave the pack of pads in the toilet cabinet at home so that Senhor Pereira would not have the unpleasant experience of finding it when he opened the cabinet to splash some Old Spice onto his face with loud slaps, Men don’t want to know about these things, Mother or Gran explained. The issue of menstruation was one of the few on which they agreed, men did not like finding packs of sanitary pads or hearing about cramps and chocolate cravings, menstruation was a woman’s business like embroidery, cooking and housework, it was discussed quietly and led to all sorts of prohibitions. On those days one should not wash one’s hair, walk around in bare feet, enter a cemetery, do any physical exercise nor go to the beach, since one’s flower was open and blood might rush to the head or might never stop flowing. Even though they mostly agreed on the subject, Mother and Gran disagreed on some of the details. According to Mother I could wash my hair as long as I did not take too long, I could exercise as long as I did not stand on my head, and I could go to the beach as long as I did not sunbathe. To Mother’s and Gran’s orders and counter-orders was added the conflicting advice from friends and classmates, from Milena who used tampons with no fear of losing her virginity, from Clara who knew of a home remedy that stopped the belly from swelling, from Paulinha, who stopped the bleeding with cold showers, and so we grew together through pride in our common destiny as future procreators. We bled proudly every month, even if we were made uncomfortable by cramps, spotty faces and sanitary pads, because as long as we bled we could fulfil the destinies, given only to us, of bringing children into the world. The worst that could happen to a woman was to be unserviceable in that department, all we had to do was look at Dona Rosalinda, who lived a couple of houses away from Gran’s and was forced to raise her husband’s two little dark-skinned bastards, amid insults and thrashings. The poor woman cannot give him any children, Gran explained, everyone knows that in these circumstances the men will go and find them somewhere else. As everyone knew that this is how things were, Dona Rosalinda thanked God for having escaped the fate of unserviceable women, which was, as everyone knows, to be abandoned.
At the supermarket, when Senhor Pascoal replaced his wife at the checkout counter, Mother took her time walking along the half dozen aisles as if she were visiting a museum. Men get ideas into their heads when they see certain things, Mother said to me once, enigmatically, while we killed time near the detergent shelves, the pack of sanitary pads hidden beneath the rest of our shopping. If there was no urgency, and if Senhor Pascoal’s wife was taking too long to return to the checkout counter, Mother gave up on buying the pads. We’ll take them next time, she said, as if some invisible superior force had made her stop. If there was some urgency, Mother would sigh as if resigned to face a volley of bullets and, discreetly, she would place the pack of pads on the checkout belt, not daring to meet eyes with Senhor Pascoal, who must have been getting into his head the ideas that men get into their heads when they see certain things.
Come here, Eliete. After that afternoon, there were never any more hosepipe showers in the garden and the swimsuit was used only at the beach, where a certain lack of modesty was allowed for health reasons, because the sea was good for me, especially my breathing allergies, and the spots that disfigured my face. The beach I liked most was Tamariz, but we always went to Rainha beach, Mother’s favourite. We would arrive quite early, when the morning was still cool, the sun still hidden, to secure a good place near the large rock in the middle of the beach, around which gathered well-prepared beach goers like us, and we would remain fully dressed until the sun was out. Every time, Mother would discuss with other families the size of the waves, the water level, the accuracy of the tidal forecasts, the inaccuracy of the weather forecasts, the haze that blocked her view of the cliffs, on top of which perched shops, restaurants and houses, their air conditioning units and aluminium awnings visible from the beach. Another thing that never changed was the spot she chose to keep the packed lunch we brought in a basket, scrambled egg sandwiches wrapped in rough paper towels, fresh oranges bough at the station bar. Here, in the rock’s shade, she would always say, as if it were the first time, and I could not understand why it was so easy to predict tides and Mother’s behaviour but so difficult to predict weather or visibility. When the sun came out, the moment came for Mother to slather our shoulders, nose and cheeks with Nivea cream, taking care to always open the blue jar over the towel because of the sand. Judging by the state of Mother’s face, I too must have looked like an ugly tribeswoman. After the daubing of the cream, Mother would lie belly-up and sleep with her mouth open as if she were at home. Also as if she were at home was the way she took a dip in the sea, bending over at the water’s edge and using her cupped hands to gather the foam from the shallow waves to refresh her sun-burned skin. It was not unusual for Mother to ask for my help when she was bathing in the sea like this, but I avoided it when I could. I was even more embarrassed by Mother putting on that display than by not knowing how to do front crawl.
For years I dreamed of imitating the perfect movements of those girls who swam in the sea as naturally as if they were walking on dry land, but unlike walking, running and jumping, the mere passage of time was not enough for my body to learn how to swim properly, leaving me anxious to figure out how to coordinate my breathing, my strokes, my head rotations and all my other movements like those girls who swam with the boys all the way out to the boats moored in the distance. I could do breast stroke, and badly. One day I even made it as far as the rope with the orange floats a few metres before the boats, but I was never able to repeat the deed, I would get tired, swallow seawater, get cramps. I imagine I looked like I was being weighed down, like a stiff-necked turtle with frog legs and arms swinging in sad semicircles. Before falling asleep, in that brief interval between wakefulness and a slumber in which I was no longer properly myself, I pictured myself going into the water with a somersault or a pike jump and swimming freestyle out to the boats as fast as the heroines in Bond films, other holidaymakers would give me a standing ovation and I would walk out of the sea as if I were on a catwalk, no need to break the illusion by shaking my head to get water out of my ears or by shielding my eyes from the sun to find my towel. For a brief moment, I was the best and most elegant freestyle swimmer. If I was tired at bedtime, my dreams were less ambitious. I longed for an even golden tan, to lose my fear of diving onto the ground reaching for a ball during racquet sports, for ten fewer centimetres of waistline and about as many more of leg length. In reality there was nothing wrong with me, it was just a question of redistributing centimetres. On those beach days I also longed to find my role in that theatre, that enormous theatre in which everyone knew what character they were playing, the tobacco-chewing lifeguard, the girl who takes her time getting into the water and the other one who whispers and laughs, the pedalo rental attendant offering discounts to pretty girls, the embarassing mother, the couple entwining hands and legs, the family playing cards or the other family eating breaded chicken and cubed melon, the boy playing with a ball or the other boy splashing the girls, the rolled wafer-biscuit seller, the people who walk at the water’s edge, the ones who exercise, the ones who make an effort to get bronzed, the ones who read, everyone played their roles convincingly, except for me.
Now that you’re a young woman, anything can happen, you don’t have to go too far to know this. The first few times Gran gave me this warning, I had no idea what she was talking about. It was the way she insisted you don’t have to go too far and the way she emphasised it when Mother was nearby that led me to think about Mother’s past. I did not want to be like Mother, I did not want whatever had happened to her to happen to me, but it was too late to prevent Gran’s words from having the opposite effect on me, her anything can happen foreshadowing a future of adventure that I intended to embrace with all my strength. Anything can happen resonated within me with an exquisite echo, as if I could become a boy. Anything could happen to boys, they did not need to feel fear or shame; fear and shame were always something for the girls. Even if it was the boys trying to grope them or pull them close to kiss them with tongues, the fault was always with the girls who had failed to avoid being harassed, the fault was always with the girls who had asked for it, the fault had always been with the girls since Eve gave Adam the apple, period. Anything might happen, but within that anything, I would know how to become something different to Mother, to Mother and to Gran, I would know how to be whoever I wanted to be.
Do something, doctor, please, do something, Mother begged, she seemed to be more upset about Gran’s distress and nudity that I was. While I tried to sort out Gran, the man in the nearby stretcher, a grumpy man who had driven off the road on a motor scooter, tugged once more at the doctor’s coat to ask about the football score. I’m not interested in football, the doctor replied, a firm voice, a confident man. What luck for his wife, I thought, she doesn’t have to see her husband quaffing litres of beer while he watches a match, she doesn’t have to listen to his ridiculous insults when he thinks someone has played badly or throaty laugh when he reads what his friends are saying on Facebook, sneering at rival clubs. What luck for his wife that she doesn’t have to witness her husband’s absurd anger at referees, how lucky not to be married to Jorge, how lucky not be me.
There were no windows in the A&E room or in the corridor, where stretchers were lined up against the walls, and the strangely white light falling on us, especially the light falling on Gran, was making me uncomfortable, making me feel guilty for not having answered the doctor’s question. Did you notice your Grandmother behaving unusually before this episode? I could not find a way to tell him that I knew almost nothing about my Gran’s day-to-day life, I was going to come across as the monstrous granddaughter who abandoned her, but that’s not what had happened, even though I couldn’t say what had happened. I wanted to escape and could not. The light falling on us, especially the light falling on the doctor, emphasised his body and the muscles rippling beneath the coat. He was a young doctor who did not like football, and Mother wouldn’t shut up, Do something, doctor, please, do something. Suddenly, I pictured myself naked, bent over one of the stretchers in the corridor as the doctor spanked me, asking repeatedly as he fucked me, Any unusual behaviour, did you notice any unusual behaviour? While I pondered his use of the word episode in this context. Please doctor, I could still hear Mother’s strident voice even as I imagined dragging the doctor to the Venus suite of the motel on the IC19 highway that I sometimes passed on the way to viewings. I was a competent real estate agent, dilligent in securing properties, persuasive in selling them, good at establishing partnerships with the best clients and implementing strategies that delivered unbeatable results, even if I was not as eloquent as Natália, or had the photogenic looks that made her posters stop passersby in their tracks wherever she put them up. Natália who had been named Platinum Agent many times before, and is in a loving relationship with a caring husband, Natália upon whom I secretly wished small domestic accidents, small misfortunes that might chip away at her competence in managing life’s hardships, that might ruin the confident air that buyers and sellers trusted, that might undermine the resilience she so often talked about. Instead of drowning out Mother’s voice, my Venus suite reveries seemed to make her talk even louder. Eliete, look at how your grandmother’s eyes are bulging out from their sockets. I had visited the Venus suite online, with its round bed, love seat and dance floor, a lavatory with a corner bath, jacuzzi, bidet and toilet, all lit by fake candles that allowed for romanticism without the risk of fire or the smell of a wake, Have mercy, Eliete.
The anxiety medication was finally having an effect, Gran was no longer imploring to be taken to Lisbon and she let me hold her hand. Her arm stuck out at an angle like when she used to walk me to school, my hand in hers. Except that then we were side by side, not perpendicular to each other like now. Now I remained standing, but Gran was lying down and in a poor state. Gran’s smile when she walked me to school, shielding me from the cars that drove up to the Sintra Mountains and protecting me from the outsiders at the campsite, was far from the mindless benzodiazepine smile she had now. Her hand, so strong then, was now a dead bird in mine. I wanted to embrace her like I did then, back when I tried to make my footsteps match hers, a time when Gran’s love rescued me from the solitude of that desolate set of houses between the sea, the mountains and the wind, I wanted to embrace her but I pulled my hand away as soon as I could.
The doctor asked again. Any unusual behaviour, differences in her personality, apathy, confusion, memory loss, did you notice any of these? I noticed that as he spoke he twisted his gold wedding ring around his finger. I had read in a book about body language that twisting a ring is a way of signaling willingess to betray the commitment that the ring represents. I smiled at the doctor, and I fixed my hair pretending that the wandering of my hand and the gentle swaying of my body came naturally to me, while Mother responded evasively. At our age we are different from one day to the next. We must seize the day while we’re young, I added mischievousy. While we’re young, the doctor repeated. I detected some irony in his voice as he no doubt calculated each one of my forty-two pitiful years and I admired his eyes not yet burdened by sagginess, his skin not yet wrinkled, his abundant hair. I then thought about Jorge’s sunken eyes, his wrinkled skin, the horseshoe of hair around his bald spot. Age is unfair to us. Unstoppable, age would one day wear down the irony in the doctor’s voice, and even sooner would wear down his body. Yes, what age does to us is unfair, but it is fair that it does it to everyone. This thought calmed me down; time would be my great avenger.
As if we had agreed on it beforehand, neither I nor Mother told the doctor that we could not answer his question because, apart from some festive dates, Christmases, Easters, birthdays, we rarely saw Gran. Nor did I tell him that I suspected Gran no longer had the strength to do her gardening or the eyesight to notice oil stains on her clothes, that she fell asleep at the dining room table to feel accompanied by the girls from the television shopping channel. I suspected many other things, little things, but I never wanted to confirm them because I would not know what to do with the certainty that Gran was vulnerable. Vulnerable and alone.
I heard myself saying, I am the only granddaughter, even when it was obvious that the doctor, who was already putting out his hand to say goodbye, had no interest in that information. But I did not waver, knowing that I was being ridiculous had never deterred me from doing anything, on the contrary, I stuck my chest out, composed my best smile, and shook his hand goodbye imagining that the doctor would regret not having found an excuse to give me his number and would go looking for mine in Gran’s records, days later he would invite me out for coffee, not everything was lost.
The doctor had gone away, Gran had fallen asleep, Mother paced around, inspecting other patients lying about the place, and I did not know what to do. I did not like the idea of Gran waking up in a strange place, surrounded by strangers, not seeing me nearby, Gran would be scared or confused. That lady is closer to the other side, Mother reported as she rejoined us, referring to a patient who had just been brought in on a stretcher. The other side. As if death were some place holding dinosaurs and wooly mammoths, Ancient Greece and the roman empire, the giant Easter Island heads and, of course, Father. But Gran was not dying, Gran was strong, the proof was in the way she had put up a fight moments ago, she would stay in the hospital only to have tests that would conclude that the fall had not been serious. Your grandmother has been through so much, in spite of everything she does not deserve this. In spite of everything was perhaps the most appropriate phrase to illustrate the relationship between Mother and Gran and my relationship with each of them. In spite of everything the three of us were there and perhaps Mother was not deliberately making comments that seemed inappropriate by comparison to the professionals around us who acted like robots with their mechanical movements and short phrases, Your grandmother doesn’t deserve it and we don’t deserve it, and that air conditioner, the noise it makes is doing my head in, I can’t stand it. It had been a mistake to call Mother asking her to come with me to the hospital. Gran always accused her of being useless when Father died, I don’t know what made me think she would be of any help.
Before leaving, Mother asked a nurse, lowering her voice as if she had suddenly remembered the hospital’s code of conduct. How long will my mother-in-law stay here? Only as long as is necessary, the nurse smiled, this hotel is always trying to send its customers away, we don’t want people staying too long. I noticed her well-pressed uniform, the smooth leather of her shoes, the firm weave of her tights, whoever puts so much care into her uniform will surely treat patients well, I thought to calm myself.
Out in the parking lot, I protected myself from the June sunlight, concentrating on the weeds growing between the paving slabs. Looking back at the enormous hospital building, Mother said proudly, It is a very dignified place, took them years to build it, but it’s like the best hospitals abroad, much better than the ones in Lisbon. For Mother, abroad was still a faraway country where everything was better, and Lisbon, fewer than thirty kilometres away from Cascais, was the nearby rival, the decadent capital where nothing seemed right. But what Mother remembered most nostalgically was the old hospital, the hospital where I was born, in the centre of Cascais. I did not have to check the tide charts to know that a wave of memories would wash over us on the journey from the hospital to Mother’s house. The stories about my birth always arrived as if they were tied to a string pulled by an invisible hand. At the near end of that string was Father driving like a madman, hazard lights blinking, honking euphorically as he drove past his revolutionary friends huddled at the corner by the petrol station plotting the fate of the property left behind by the rich who had moved to Brazil. And at the hospital, after braking spectacularly, abandoning the car in the middle of the road shouting, My wife is giving birth to my son. Mother enjoyed telling the rest of the story. You were born four months after the revolution, at the time revolutionaries were sprouting everywhere like mushrooms, you kicked a rock and there was another one, of course your father had to become a revolutionary, your father could never let a fashion pass him by. How annoyed Senhor Pereira was, and your grandmother even more so, your father should not have gotten mixed up with those people who went around painting hammers and sickles onto walls, jobless parasites, children of privilege, who are now business managers, heads of this, directors of that. Back then they coveted the houses belonging to rich fascists, now they covet everything from everyone and not even the poorest can escape their greed. Your father was already the head of a family, he had responsibilities, he should have never gotten himself mixed up with that crowd. April 25 was your father’s downfall, in that the old woman was right.
Because he was a man, Father was always allowed to do anything, and even if Gran or Mother complained about this or that, anything could happen to him, he could make anything happen. When he met Mother, she was already a young woman, anything could happen to her too. And it did happen, Mother became pregnant with me when she was just sixteen. I did not have to go very far to know that anything could happen to me. Come here, Eliete.
Mother was still talking, but I’d stopped paying attention, I was trying to figure out what had happened to Gran that day. As usual, Gran must have woken up that morning with the first rays of light to come through her window, she’d gotten up and crossed herself in front of the little altar with saints she had in her bedroom, then put on her Sunday shoes, even though it was not a Sunday. That would have been the first slip up, to mistake a Thursday for a Sunday. She then forgot to take off her nightgown, or perhaps she didn’t forget, perhaps Gran was tired of the dead that had kept her in mourning all her life. She hobbled to the bus stop. Sunday shoes are the nicest, but wearing them is hell, she used to say. No neighbour would have stopped her, they did not know her, the old neighbours had died or had been put into care homes by their children, the same children who had inherited their houses and sold them off at a good price. Or perhaps nobody had actually crossed paths with Gran, the new neighbours rose early to go jogging wearing fluorescent clothes and earphones. God was a minimalist and repetitive composer when it came to that place, sea and wind, wind and sea, even the birds’ chirping always sounded the same. Gran walked with a handkerchief over her head to protect herself from the dust, forgetting that the road was now paved and that the new houses had decking, bricks, lawns, paving stones, alleyways, the new houses had everything except soil, which was dirty and ugly, and cement floors did not gather dust. The bus driver did not recognize Gran. Had it been Senhor Tadeu, who drove that route all his life and knew passengers’ names and their family connections, everything would have been different. Senhor Tadeu would have persuaded Gran to go back home, but Senhor Tadeu died many years ago and his successors were always changing jobs and did not want to do small talk, they were paid and badly to bus people from one place to another and they did it with varying degreees of punctuality, with varying amounts of bumps and jolts. From a distance or to the casual observer, Gran’s nightgown could pass for a daring dress that, along with her Sunday shoes, might be worn by a young woman. Between Gran’s house and the souvenir shop on Rua Direita, fifteen minutes by foot and some more on the bus, the people whose paths crossed with Gran would have seen her from a distance or would have been casual observers so nobody noticed she needed help, perhaps they thought she was an eccentric young woman, Gran’s body could be deceiving. Not even the souvenir shop manager, when he saw her enter in that get-up, noticed she was the old woman who had been in the day before. He remembered her well because she had wandered around in the shop until she found herself standing in front of the stand with the key rings. She had picked one up, and made her way for the door, without paying. When they had tried to stop her, she apologised and said that she was distracted, lost in her thoughts. The manager was surprised to see her, the following day, dressed in that strange way and repeating an unusual woman’s name. She was so distressed that she tripped over a wicker basket filled with toy sardines, and fell helplessly. The souvenir shop manager told this story to the first aiders who assisted Gran, who told the story to the hospital nurses, who told it to the doctor I imagined taking to the Venus suite, who told Mother and me. Somewhere along the way the name Gran was crying out got lost, Possibly Eliete, my name, I guessed. The doctor could not confirm it, but did not think it important to clarify this detail, explaining that in such cases socio-affective capabilities tend to deteriorate, because the patient remains trapped in her delusions. He seemed to be saying, in his medical jargon, that in cases like Gran’s anything goes. What cases, I wanted to ask, but didn’t have the courage, what did the doctor mean by in such cases if it was simply a fall? What case might a fall be? People are always falling and Gran also fell, we shouldn’t make a big deal of it. Gran hit her head on the souvenir shop floor, trickles of blood dripped out and stained her white hair. Your name and address, madam, and contact details for someone we can call?
I did not mind driving Mother home, but I was bothered by her making such a fuss about my offer. You didn’t have to bring me, I could have taken a bus, even though we both knew that the bus stop was far from her house and that the ride was not just an excuse to spend time together. I always turned down her invitation to go up to her house. I can make you a coffee, she said, as if speaking to a visitor. At first I would make up urgent tasks, the girls, Jorge, work. Not even for five minutes, everyone has five minutes. I would invent other even more absurd excuses and Mother would gladly assume the role of the wretched woman with an ungrateful daughter. How could I explain to Mother that the problem was not with her, but with the way time seemed to be warped in her house? When I entered Mother’s house time seemed to become a crude slingshot, and I was at its mercy, ammunition against myself, pulled back in time and then shot out unprotected into the present, where all my mistakes and failures were on display. Mother’s house reminded me of everything I did not want to be and which, ironically, I became. You need to find some time for yourself, look at Dona Rosa’s daughter, she is two years older than you but seems younger, Mother said to punish me for what she saw as my rejection. Mother took no great pleasure in me coming upstairs, but insisted on inviting me, so that my refusal would give her an excuse to hurt me. She would then delight in petty insinuations, I lost track of the number of times she suggested my marriage was in crisis, the number of fixes the girls got into, how many times I was in danger of being fired, how many times I needed to lose weight, change my hairstyle, remove my facial hair, learn to apply makeup, to dress properly, to behave. When I answered back, Mother said I was becoming bitter. I once made the mistake of asking, Bitter how?, the golden specks in her eyes flickered into life and she replied with no hesitation, Like unhappy people. It is not surprising that she was taken aback when, on the day of the hospital visit, I accepted her invitation to come upstairs, but instead of saying anything she hid her astonishment to avoid appearing weak. Not appearing weak could have been Mother’s motto.
The mobile phone chirped with an incoming message. It was Jorge asking for news of Gran. Gran is losing her mind, I wrote on the mobile’s brightly lit screen, but immediately deleted it. I wrote, I miss being young in summer, not knowing where that sentiment had come from. I reread the line. I deleted it. I liked mobile phone screens, where words could be destroyed as easily as they could be created. Leaving no trace. Luminous places, clean, with no marks or crossings-out or memory, where it is always possible to start again. I wrote, I’ll call you when I leave Mother’s house, and sent the message. Two blue ticks confirmed that Jorge had read it. In return, I got an OK and a smiley face. I chose a heart to send back, but Mother distracted me with the marketing leaflets she had just pulled out of her mailbox, I should buy myself one of these blood pressure monitors, and the heart was left forgotten among my drafts.
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