“It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to,” wrote Borges. This is a statement that makes me think of my other self, the other Laughlin who lived in another world, another time, as another self in another country—as we’re always another when we live outside our native land.
Lusophones love to tout the uniqueness of their (our) language, and in even the most roundabout of metalinguistic conversations, all roads eventually lead to saudade. But aside from a vague quasi-mysticism about loss that surrounds the word, the meaning is straightforward—saudades tuas, I miss you. Saudades de Portugal. I miss Portugal. Loss, longing. We have tools in English that serve to get the point across quite easily.
It’s July 2020. I am supposed to be in Portugal for the tenth edition of the DISQUIET International Literary Program. Instead I’m at my home in Amherst, Massachusetts, about half a mile from the very common the magazine that you hold in your hands is named after.
The Alentejo is the landscape of heartbreak. Or at least it was to me. Even its trees are clearly loners, set apart from each other at distant intervals across miles of sere brown fields. The Alentejo is all about waiting, from its numbered cork trees, with their skinned underbellies between harvest years, to the fabled, and perhaps fictional, nun Mariana, writing from Beja to a lover who will never come back. The Letters of a Portuguese Nun have been awaiting an author, an answer, for three and a half centuries now. Once celebrated for sparking a revolution in the European epistolary novel, now considered out of fashion even in Portugal, they remain a literary enigma, the country’s Mona Lisa.
It begins with her saying I’ve never told anyone and ends with me saying Neither have I. And in between, a single sentence on how the love we feel for a child is not necessarily immediate, on how we need time to get to know and fall in love with another being, even though they were once inside us. We talk over the phone; this may never have happened face-to-face, or as we looked one another in the eye.
She had been dead nearly a decade before she sought me out. I was in my late twenties when she first came to me; then, again and again over a period of several years, whenever I came home to visit and always in the middle of the night as I slept in my old room. Before it was mine, it was hers. In the recurring dream or vision, I opened my eyes to darkness and knew I was not alone. She stood in the far corner by the closet, waiting for something. The air between us, a conduit—even from across the room, I felt her body tingling my skin. You don’t always have to see a thing to know it exists.
On the night Billy Ray was born
(New York, 28th and 7th)
not one soul contemplated the geraniums
There was, however, the sound of the world falling
like multiple stalactites
in the area surrounding the hospital
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.