There is a clear distinction to be made between Christmas celebrations and those of the new year. The former are family occasions, or, for those without family, sad get-togethers with friends (and even then only close friends, the ones regarded as family). But New Year celebrations, being held in a spirit of renewal, an atmosphere of ‘from now on everything will be different’, of ‘put it all behind you, here comes 2011’, are all about good riddance, and nobody really wants to celebrate that sort of thing with people as permanent as family. Seeing in the new year is a ritual to be undertaken with friends, lovers, casual acquaintances. The city of Porto Alegre empties out completely, leaving only beggars in the streets, while the lower-middle, middle-middle and upper-middle classes flock to the Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina beaches, where they celebrate the turn of the year as if it were a carnival compressed into a single day. Which explains all those crazy stories that do the rounds, like: ‘I screwed two chicks at New Year,’ or: ‘Then we all went skinny-dipping,’ or: ‘I took acid and lay on the sand and watched the fireworks.’
He, for his part, had had no such experiences. At nineteen years of age he felt he had missed out on every opportunity for a good time, breaking free, getting some kicks. He had never even travelled on his own (that is, without his family). So in the new year he would make sure things were different, and now was a good time to start. The way he spent this New Year’s Eve would be a symbol of what was in store, an introductory ritual to the adventures he would have in his twenties, making up for his boring teens and a childhood which, if not sad, had certainly been dreary.
That was the plan. He had rented a house in Imbé (with financial help from his father); a small town with few buildings and a cold, brown sea. It was a bit far away from his friends, who would be on the neighbouring beaches, but he was taking his girlfriend Juliane. His very first trip alone with a girl. Even if this escapade was still far removed from the kind of kicks his friends went on about, in him it aroused sentiments of epic proportions. To him, aged nineteen, having sex was no routine occurrence – each time was new and amazing and special. He didn’t like to admit it, but Juliane was his first lover. She was three years younger than he was, but seemed infinitely more experienced – if not more experienced, then at any rate more relaxed about sex, and consequently more relaxed about the world in general.
They arrive at Imbé on 30 December, after some tense moments in the car because he isn’t sure if he has taken the right road. They leave their bags in the rented house (pretty, despite hideous furnishings and a musty smell). Darkness falls.
They go out to meet some friends who are having a barbecue on the next beach, Tramandaí. The evening goes well. More friends arrive. One guy opens the boot of his car and connects a sound system, turning the volume up loud enough to provide party music for an entire neighbourhood. Juliane drinks beer. So does he. He keeps glancing at his watch: the truth is he can’t wait to say ciao to his friends and to the horrendous noise, and go home to bed with Juliane, get down to some full-blown intimacy and fall asleep together in the small hours (so that he’d know what it felt like to sleep next to a woman).
It is 2 a.m. by the time they return to their rented house in Imbé. He drives nervously, opens the front door nervously, draws Juliane to the bed and scrambles out of his clothes nervously, almost shaking with nerves, like a teenager taken to a brothel by his uncle (an experience his friends claim to have had but not he, and now it’s too late).
They wake up at noon. It is the 31st, the last day of the year. Tomorrow will be 2011. They have lunch (they’ve brought packets of instant noodles). She wants to go to the beach. He prefers going to the supermarket while it’s still open, to stock up on beer and sparkling wine for tonight, not to mention the pork for the traditional pernil, the grapes and the lentils. So that’s what they do. He takes his time going round the shelves, determined not to overlook a single ingredient of the good-luck rituals, because all rituals matter. Everything is a symbol, and he more than anybody else needs to define his symbols for the year to come, his year of change.
He drops his purchases off at the house and walks to the shore to meet up with Juliane. She told him earlier that she would stay on the nearest beach, the one at the bottom of the road. But finding her isn’t as easy as anticipated, the sand is packed with people and parasols and dogs and children and beach chairs and corncobs and empty beer cans and soda bottles. There’s a competition going on (not official) for the car with the loudest sound system. Three women in bikinis are dancing around a Celta – much to the dismay of the owner of the Corsa, whose music has attracted just one pot-bellied man holding a cup of maté.
He spends half an hour looking for her. Each time he spots a head of blonde shoulder-length hair he waits for the person to turn round in case it’s Juliane, but it never is. He gives up and returns to the house. The first thing he sees upon entering is her pink, sunburned back (she didn’t use suntan lotion and her fair skin can’t take the sun). He tells her about his search on the beach, to which she smiles and says: ‘We must’ve just missed each other – while you were looking for me, I picked up my stuff and came home. The sun’s too strong out there.’ And she’s right: the sun is too strong, in spite of the clouds which do nothing to cool the air, only trap the heat.
They while away the time with a game of poker, then go to bed. Come six o’clock, he gets up, puts the groceries on the kitchen table and starts making supper. She opens the fridge and starts drinking. Night falls, as ever. They eat the roast pork. He has overdone the pepper, and the rosemary tastes a bit strange, but she doesn’t comment on this. They clink with beer (the sparkling wine is for later on, at midnight). They discuss whether or not to go down to the beach to watch the fireworks, whether or not to jump over the waves (which must be done seven times in succession for good luck in 2011). Is she wearing white panties? he asks. All the papers have been going on about white being the lucky colour, so wearing no panties is preferable to wearing black ones. She claps her hand to her forehead and says: ‘Silly me! I forgot all about taking a shower!’ and runs off to the bathroom.
He has brought a book with him to Imbé, something warmly recommended by an uncle of his, a professor of literature. The title is somewhat pompous – Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me – and the novel is rather long. There’s not much point in starting it now, as he will have to stop when she comes out of the bathroom. So he switches the TV on, puts his brain in neutral and watches the new year celebrations taking place around the globe. His eyelids droop.
He is not sure whether he dozed off, but has the feeling that a long time has elapsed. It’s eleven o’clock. He can still hear the shower running.
He goes over to the bathroom. Thinks to barge in and surprise her. Instead, he knocks on the door timidly. ‘Everything OK?’ No answer, and a shiver runs down his spine. He turns the handle and the door won’t open. Locked? He tries again, and the door gives way (it just needed a little push). Juliane straightens up, startled. She has been hunched over the toilet bowl. ‘Go away!’ she says. ‘I don’t want you to see me like this.’ He asks her what’s wrong, did she have too much to drink? There are traces of vomit on the seat and on the floor around the bowl. ‘I don’t know. I feel terrible.’ He says not to worry, that he’s there to help. She doubles up again and disgorges another torrent into the bowl. He takes a wad of toilet paper and wipes up the spill. Her skin is still wet from the shower. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ she repeats, as if to say it’s not her fault.
‘No, really, this has never happened to me before.’ He suggests possible causes – the sun, the beer, the roast pork (the pepper, the rosemary). He asks if she has any allergies, but she doesn’t seem to hear, because she doesn’t answer.
She cleans herself up. He helps her to the bedroom, she lies down. She asks him to bring her a bucket, and he goes off in search of a bucket all over the unfamiliar house, eventually finding one tucked away in a small, dark, cobwebby space, presumably the maid’s room. She vomits again, in the bucket this time. Thirty minutes left of 2010.
‘Could be an allergic reaction,’ he says.
‘But I’m not allergic to anything,’ she replies.
‘How about giving your parents a call?’
So then she explains – feebly, her voice choked from the strain of throwing up. She told her parents a lie, said she was going on this trip with a girl as they wouldn’t have let her go with a boyfriend. Parents from the backwoods, you know how it is, they think a girl of sixteen’s less safe with a boyfriend than going off with her mates to some wild party where she’ll be hassled by all sorts of guys. No, he can’t call her parents, they mustn’t hear his voice or they’d know she was lying and never let her go on a trip ever again.
‘What if I take you to the hospital?’ But she has no health insurance, she’s underage, they don’t know where the hospital is, her parents would end up finding out (they always do).
She is dripping with sweat. No respite from the heat even at night, that’s what the summers are like down south, in December. He gets up to switch on the fan: a breeze might do her good. No sooner has he done this than she’s fast asleep. The effect was so sudden that for a terrified, insane moment he thinks she might actually be dead. Then, seeing her chest rise and fall as she breathes, his fear is assuaged.
Bursts of noise can be heard outside. The new year is almost upon them. Another fifteen minutes to go. Juliane opens her eyes wide and looks about her in terror, as if she has no idea where she is, which bed, which room, which boyfriend. She lurches over and vomits once more in the bucket. He holds her head fondly, and she lies back again. ‘What can I do to help?’ he asks in a voice choked like hers, as if he’s on the brink of tears. Juliane, sounding more dead than alive, just begs to be left to sleep. She closes her eyes and falls asleep instantly. Ten minutes to midnight. Taut with nerves, he gets up to wander about the house. On the sofa he finds his book. The story begins as follows:
‘No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again.’
He throws the book on the floor, as if it had delivered a shock so powerful that, had he not released the pages immediately, he would have been electrocuted on the spot. Although it makes no sense whatsoever, he takes this to be an omen and rushes to the bedroom, convinced of Juliane’s demise. She’s still sleeping and breathing. He begins to weep, shedding one small tear at a time. He goes back to his book and reads on, driven by the need to know what the opening sentence will lead to, what the novel is about – and may it have no bearing whatsoever on his own life, please. An abrupt change of subject, an explanation, anything like that would be a relief. But reading on brings no relief, each sentence renders him more nervous than the last.
The fireworks, intermittent at first, begin to explode en masse, like gunfire in battle. He puts the book down again and returns to the bedroom. Juliane is still asleep, her mouth smeared with greenish vomit. It’s midnight, and it’s 2011. He goes to fetch the book and sits down beside her to read. He has no idea why he does this, he could just as well turn on the TV and watch the firework displays in Copacabana, but then that would only depress him further. He could try and get some sleep, but – what a joke, what a horrible joke – he is sure, as sure as he is that the sun will rise in the morning, that he wouldn’t get a wink of sleep, not with that deathly pale girl lying there. ‘A moribund girl,’ he tells himself, immediately regretting having thought in such terms. How could he possibly sleep, given the possibility of waking up with his arms wrapped round a dead woman? So he carries on reading, obsessed with reaching the end of the novel, unable to stop, compelled to read every single line and go wherever the narrator takes him – it’s the only way Juliane will stay alive. Something has lodged in his mind, an absurd superstition, which is ridiculous because he’s not superstitious and never will be, but he puts his faith in it anyway, because if he doesn’t he’ll suffocate. What it boils down to is this: if he manages to finish the book, all will be well. The dead woman in the man’s embrace will remain forever captive in fiction.
He reads on feverishly, running his finger along the lines so as not to miss a single word. Juliane sleeps on, moaning softly from time to time. Looking up from his novel, he recoils from the sight of the body lying on the bed. Hours go by, his eyes ache and grow heavy, the lines begin to dance and swirl on the page. A drunken brawl breaks out in the road. Leftover fireworks are set off. Cars race by at a hundred kilometres per hour with music turned up full blast.
Page 300 – 5 a.m. already and dawn is about to break. He laughs out loud at the idiocy of his superstition, and can’t think how he could have got so carried away. But he’ll keep on reading, because it is imperative that he finishes what he set out to do.
It is the first day of 2011. In 2011 he will be twenty, and officially an adult. Perhaps this is what adulthood comes down to: utter loneliness. Deceiving yourself by inventing superstitions and other nonsense might work for some, but evidently not for him. The life he faces is not going to be easy, life is never easy for the kind of person who doesn’t believe in the supernatural or in God or in spirits, who wants to distance himself from his family and strike out on his own, who’s not at ease with sex, and who’s fazed by having a moribund girl lying on the bed beside him. It won’t be easy for someone who doesn’t watch much TV, who has trouble sleeping, who takes everything to heart to the point of not getting any sleep at all. Nor will it be easy for someone with only books for company (not that he knows that yet, he just suspects it will be so). Books never bring peace of mind.
Yet he carries on reading.
He finishes the book and puts it on the bedside table. He lies down beside Juliane, but doesn’t take her in his arms. He just lies on his back, staring at the ceiling. It’s broad daylight outside. Juliane wakes up with a start, as from a nightmare. He asks her if she’s all right (in the hoarse voice of someone who’s been up all night) and Juliane says yes, she’s feeling much better. She gets up, embarrassed about the mess and the vomit and the stink and how she looks half dead, and says she’s going to take a shower. He stays where he is, closes his eyes and thinks: Now I can sleep at last.
Photograph © W. Eugene Slowik Jr.