As soon as I saw Katie, I wanted to live there. Concrete steps led up to the front door of the house, past a flower bush, fallen petals caught like fish in a net of branches. She opened the door and said, with her cartoon heigh-ho enthusiasm, “Well, you must be our Emily,” and led me in past the living room, down the stairs to meet James, her boyfriend. I had found the room through a handwritten ad tacked up in the University of London student union, and they had invited me over right away.
James was tall, long-limbed, with dark hair he had to brush away from his eyes before shaking my hand. Katie busied herself cleaning, washing a frying pan whose nonstick surface had burnt off the middle and then rinsing the plates under a swan-necked faucet. She used huge squeezes of soap for each piece and put the dishes onto the drying rack with suds still sliding off. A candle burned in a glass jar by the sink, sending out its perfume like a small, hot bouquet.
The sea was unfurling bolts of cotton on the beach.
But now, at least in this cove, the sea is muddy. The waves sprawling on the sand, under the spotlight of an intense sun, exhibit a strange hue—a corrupt, corrosive red that might be called ocher, as if the sea, in its incessant flow, had passed through steep, muddy ravines before subsiding here, and dislodged clumps of earth that dissolved to contaminate green water, bluish water.
The apricot tree in my childhood yard would sieve the night. Pouring through the openwork of the leaves, the moonlight littered the ground with patches shaped like bats. Because we lived in the Sunset District of San Francisco, sea drafts kept ruffling the leaves, so the bats were always fluttering their wings. Sometimes I would lie down and let the light-bats tap all over me. We lived in the bottom flat of a spindly three-story house, and there was a fig tree too, and blackberries on brambles thick as the Lord’s crown of thorns, right in the heart of the city. We had picnics with the queijadas my father made—the coconut tarts that were a specialty of his family’s bakery on the island of Terceira in the Azores. His job while raising me, his only child, was fulfilling dessert orders for restaurants, and he rented a tiny industrial kitchen in Chinatown from three to nine in the morning. Once, a triumph, the Tadich Grill requested his alfenim to decorate their pastry cart—the white sugar confection molded into doves or miniature baskets.
On December 5, 1976, I arrived in Madrid from Argentina. I flew Iberia airlines, caught the plane in Montevideo because I was afraid of the disappearances happening at the border. I left wearing summer clothes, as if I were a tourist heading for the beaches of Uruguay, then, two or three days later, landed in Madrid, where it was winter. My father and sister saw me off. It took me six years—the years of the dictatorship—to return.
“I write and that way rid myself of me and then at last I can rest.”
—Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life
1:05 a.m.: The rain starts. I arrive; so close to her I can breathe the rain mixed with the sour smell of her scalp.
1:13 a.m.: Fighting against the slowdown of the pills, C sits in front of the dressing table and hates what she sees: an ancient face with new furrows, an aged reflection of whom she thought she still was, a worsened version of herself. She can’t leave the house tomorrow as she is now: swollen face, short eyelashes, brittle hair stuck to her scalp. Grey spots mark her pale forehead like stains on the face of a full moon—a reminder of the fire in the apartment that almost extinguished her years before.
Papá announced, “Maria, I’m going to war,” and stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. Mamã, clearing the table, gave her usual start. She stood stranded in the kitchen doorway, a dirty plate in each hand.
Going to war meant going out in the dead of night to David’s bar, playing hide-and-seek with military patrols. Our lot’s supporters gathered there after hours, drank a few beers, exchanged questionable information and reliable rumors. It had been the same every night for the last three weeks, since their lot retook the city.
After dinner, Papá would say, “Maria, I’m going to war,” and Mamã would give a start, try to talk him out of it, remind him of martial law and the curfew.
Then, out of desperation, she’d say, “At least wait for the shooting to die down.”