Deep in space, within the lab onboard the alien starship, a medical monitor showed M'rak the growth and rebuilding of the skin, muscles, and DNA structure. He typed a command into his computer and the monitor turned upwards and projected the screen into a hologram, allowing M'rak to get a closer look at his experiment. It took him years to perfect the serum but this time he hoped he cracked the code in regenerating matter from nothing but bones. He had promised his superiors that if he could create the serum for medical reasons, it would benefit their society.
As the serum seeped into the rest of the bare bones of the small skeleton that lay sprawled out in the container, the holographic images showed the old, worn out, fractured and yellowish-brown bones mend, heal and sprout
Geoffrey Paine came to this coffee shop every weekday morning. He didn't particularly like it. It happened to be convenient, and the coffee was usually satisfactory. He shrugged his gold watch from under his shirt cuff and glanced at it. Yes, plenty of time for a cup of coffee and quick perusal of the paper before heading to the office. He'd been running behind this morning, unscheduled business to deal with, but made up for it. He'd skipped his usual bowl of muesli and half-grapefruit, and took only three minutes to shower.
His phone vibrated in his suit pocket. He pulled it out. Deirdre. He wondered if she was calling from the apartment. He scowled down at his briefcase. No, too early. She couldn't be back from the health club yet. Well, perhaps, but unlikely.
He re-pocketed the phone and scanned for an unoccupied table. There wasn't one, but there was a table for two, his favorite table, by the front window, but not so close to the doors as to be drafty, and there was one seat free. A piece of luck. He went to it. A young woman in a red corduroy jacket and jeans sat there preoccupied with her phone. She had short blond hair that peeked out from below a white crocheted hat.
“Is this seat taken?” Geoffrey asked.
She looked up from her phone, shook her head, smiled slightly. “No.”
Geoffrey put his Italian-made briefcase, a gift from Deirdre, by the base of the table. He inspected the seat for crumbs, gave it a quick sweep with the folded newspaper and sat down. He looked for a waitress, not wanting to go to the counter to order. His raised hand caught the attention of one, and she came over. He recognized her as one of two waitresses who usually worked there on weekday mornings.
She spoke before he could. “Double espresso and a glass of water?”
“Um...yes.” He noted the name tag above her left breast. Annie.
She nodded, scribbled on her receipt pad and started to turn away.
His stomach felt empty, having missed breakfast. “Annie--” She turned back to him, looked a little surprised. “A lemon-poppy seed muffin as well,” he said.
The waitress smiled and made the addition to the receipt. “Well, that's two firsts in one day.”
“You've been coming in here every morning forever. This is the first time you've called me by name and the first time you've ordered anything but the double espresso and water.”
“Ah. Yes.” Geoffrey considered very briefly whether this was a good thing or not. He wasn't sure, but didn't want to think about it right now. He wanted to read the paper, and glanced at his watch again. Then he opened the paper to the front page.
“I come here most mornings, too, but usually a little later. Otherwise I would have noticed you.”
Now the young woman at the table was talking to him. He gave a polite nod, accompanied by a quick smile, then went back to the headlines. The phone in his pocket vibrated. Geoffrey shrugged his shoulders to release the tension building there and ignored the phone.
What was it with these women? Could they not just go about their business and leave him to his? His mother, constantly calling him and whining about this ache and that pain, and the tedious monologues about illnesses and medications, not just hers, but those of her entire circle of widowed cronies. Deirdre and her attempts to arouse guilt over their childless state. For God's sake, he'd made it plain enough to her before their engagement that he had no intention of having children or pets in his life. But he'd buckled under her teary manipulations and let her get that dreadful animal that became pet and child to Deirdre. Naturally the thing was female, too. Another clinging, attention-mad female who had to work its way into Deirdre's lap every moment Deirdre wasn't standing.
His coffee and muffin came. He said “Thank you,” but didn't look up from the paper he wasn't actually reading. Better to not give this waitress any encouragement. Using her name had been a mistake and he would try to forget it if he could.
“So...do you work around here?”
Geoffrey peered over the top of his paper.
“Oh...what is it you do?”
He dropped the paper onto his lap. The phone vibrated against his hip again. He pulled it out from his pocket and looked at the number. Yes, it was Deirdre. She was most definitely at the apartment by now. “What I do,” he said, looking directly at the young blonde woman, “is try to manage my life without the women I come in contact with making it horrendously complicated and unpleasant.”
Her expression changed, as he quite expected, to one of anger. “Are you gay, or just an asshole?” she asked.
He smiled. “An asshole. Shaped and formed by your kind. Now if you'll just permit me to read my paper in peace...”
The young woman rose from the table. “Well, I hope you choke to death on that muffin.” She grabbed her shoulder bag from the back of her chair and left.
Geoffrey stared at her empty seat for a moment. The vibrating of the phone stopped. For a moment, all was right with the world.
He glanced at his watch and then looked at the briefcase beneath the table. Damn. He'd not even managed to get through the headlines, and he had to get going. He had to be in the office in twenty minutes, and still had to dispose of the Yorkshire Terrier in his briefcase.
Eight years had gone by and I hadn't heard from her. It was her style, not replying to emails or text messages. Avoidance was easier for her, less trouble, and what's best, you can ignore feelings and go on with your life.
All this time I've lived in Rio, Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, Mexico City, anywhere but Brussels. I've stayed away from Europe, touching down in Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, that's it. I knew it was an illusion, an escape from reality, if anything it prolonged the inevitable, a fragrant candy that is meant to distract from the pain. But it was the only thing I had.
In the end it was a phone call that made me confront my past. Hermeto, my best friend, was getting married in Sweden. He called early in the evening.
“You'll love her,” he said. “It's all very fast but when you know, you just know.”
I told him I was glad, so happy for him.
“The wedding's in August. Take a couple of weeks off, come and stay with us in Stockholm.”
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
He laughed. “Okay. How about a few days?”
I walked over to the stereo and turned down the music; Tom Jobim in concert singing Inútil Paisagem, his voice a soft wistful moan. Then I turned and looked out the window, the waves lapping at the fine whitish sand; Ipanema and Leblon at dusk.
“That should be doable,” I said.
I heard him sigh. “You're still thinking about her.”
Outside, on the sidewalk, two women with bronzed bodies chatted, fluffed their hair with long nails, their sausage dogs sniffing each other with gusto.
“Thinking about who?” I asked.
“Look. This means a lot to me, otherwise I wouldn’t ask.”
He was the only one who ever knew about Cecilia, the affair we had that I'd once thought was impossible. The whole time I'd kept it a secret, a dream I feared would disappear the moment I tried to hold on to it. Perhaps, I thought, if I hoped in silence it would last.
“Of course I'll come,” I said.
He thanked me, promised that we'd have a blast. Then he said, “There's just one thing.”
“Your in-laws don't like you.”
“Can you be quiet? I need to ask you a favor.”
“Name it, buddy. It’s your wedding.”
He was silent for a moment. I heard him clear his throat. He said, “Promise you won’t contact her while you’re here. Can you promise me that?”
I looked at some kids squealing, playing football on the sand. An old man stood up, folded his chair then walked away.
And so I did, I promised him despite not knowing how I'd be able to do it. In Stockholm's Gamla Stan, on the metro or at the market, from the back or in profile, every woman would become Cecilia.
* * *
A few weeks later I was at Arlanda airport, waiting for a taxi. In line, people waited, some of them typing on their phones, others chatting in low voices. I thought, Here I am again. In my mind, during all the years of silence, it was she who one night called, desperate, pleading for us to come back together. I wondered if she'd still be happy with her choice.
In the city I got out of the taxi and rang the bell. The bluest of skies loomed above me and the streets seemed nearly empty, devoid of sirens or the endless honking I'd grown used to in Brazil. I was about to ring again when Hermeto appeared at the door and hugged me. Then he gazed at me.
“You look great.”
“Okay. I had a rough flight.”
“You look thinner, also tired, though it's probably the light.”
“How long have you been away? You've forgotten what it means to be this north. The sunlight hits at a different angle here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“See? You're wincing. I can see your wrinkles.”
I laughed, punched him lightly on the shoulder. As usual, he was splendid, made me feel right at home. I took a quick shower, changed clothes then found him in the kitchen, putting back the dishes in one of the cupboards.
“Can I put some music on?”
“Anything you like.”
In the living room I browsed through his CD's until I chose one and put it on, a collection of artists from different African countries.
“So, where is she?” I asked.
He was behind the counter, pouring Venezuelan Rum in two glasses.
“Where's who? Frida?”
I stared at him, my head tilted.
“Relax, buddy. Are you afraid of spending time alone with me or what?”
I'd missed him. His jokes, his playfulness, it was good to be spending time with him again. In Rio we'd grown up playing volleyball, chasing women, mixing cocktails. Nobody knew me better than he did.
“Do you remember this song?” he asked.
“Wait,” I said, and tried to pay attention to the music. I began to sway my head back and forth as I walked over to him. “Of course I do.”
He laughed. “You're full of it.”
“Tell me from where.”
“Is this quiz time? I'm thirsty. Give me that drink,” I said, and reached out for my glass.
“It's Richard Bona,” he said. “Do you remember it now?”
I took a sip from the Rum & Coke, then smiled. “Those were hard times.”
“But you stuck to your dreams. ”
“It's what kept me alive, after what happened. Art was my refuge.”
“Now look at you.”
“Nobody believed in me.” I raised my glass. “Except you,” I said.
He gazed at me for a moment, then clinked his glass on mine. “You deserve to be happy.”
Then we heard the sound of keys, of the front door being open, then shut.
“Look who's here,” Hermeto said and went to meet a woman in the hallway. “You arrive just in time for a cocktail.”
I gathered it was Frida. “Oh, hi,” she said to me. “Am I interrupting? You two must have so much talk about.”
“Don't be silly,” he said. “Rum & Coke?”
I walked over to her and shook her hand, then we sat across from each other in the living room. She was wearing a green dress with yellow and orange flowers on it; she put a pillow in her lap as she sat down. She had taken her shoes off.
How was the trip, she asked. First time in Sweden?
“No,” I said, and glanced up at Hermeto. “But it's been a while. I love it here.”
He came back from the kitchen and handed her the drink. He sat next to her, kissed her on the shoulder. They started telling me about the plans they had for us in the following days, the exhibition I had to see at the Photography Museum.
“Annie Leibowitz?” I asked in awe.
“See? I told you a couple of weeks,” Hermeto said. “At least.”
“Summer's the best time of the year for festivals here,” she said.
“Yes,” he went on. “And the best time for other things too. We'll hook you up, whether you like it or not. Hey, don't give me that look. She has tons of friends, all of them beautiful.”
“I'm sure she does. It's just...”
“Leave him alone,” she said. “He just got here.”
Frida was charming and interesting, funny without wanting to. She showed the kind of politeness I'd always admired in nordic people. After my second drink I found myself having trouble keeping eye contact with her. She was blonde, with green eyes and thin eyebrows, nothing like Cecilia, and yet, I kept seeing a variation of her. Perhaps it was the accent, the intonation with which she talked, it made my hands sweat.
* * *
Later that night I felt restless, unable to sleep. I opened my laptop and searched for the last email Cecilia had sent, eight years earlier.
It feels awkward to receive your letter today but, knowing you, I shouldn't be surprised. Johann and the kids are playing in the garden, I can see them from here. I'm drinking coffee in the kitchen, thinking of what to have for breakfast. I still remember when we used to sleep until late and you'd run down to the bakery, the one in Chaussée de Vleurgat. God, I can't believe I still remember the street names. I promised myself I'd erase all of that, the whole chapter in Brussels, including the times you wouldn't listen, when I told you I wasn't single, not interested in you that way. But you kept insisting.
All this time you've been quiet. Are you married? I'm not the same woman you knew. We live in the countryside, almost an hour away from Stockholm. Sometimes I go jogging, in the evenings, when the kids are at my parent's. I read one or two books a year, if at all. You'd be disappointed, I know, but it's true. I'm only on Facebook because people want to be contacted that way. Are you on it too? I don't dare to look you up.
I found the book you gave me before I left Brussels. I'd put it in a box and hid it in the basement; I didn't want Johann to see what you'd written. How funny, I didn't even know that Peruvian writer existed before I met you and now he's won the Nobel prize. Did you also discover something with me?
Sometimes you meet people too late in life. I know you never believed me but I did wish I'd met you earlier. Leaving Johann would have been too much, with all the uncertainties and I was ready to have kids and you weren't, or at least I thought you weren't. Sometimes I wonder what if, what if we'd stayed together. But life goes on and what's left are just the memories, moments spent together, walking in the forest holding hands, a glance, your hair in my fingers, a kiss on the balcony.
The kids are coming now, time to fix breakfast. I don't know if you'll write again, probably you won't. But I don't want to think about that.
I closed the laptop and lay in bed in darkness, the moistness of her lips, the taste of her body becoming too vivid. There was so much of her in me; my body, my sex, they all craved hers. Then I started hearing a song in my head. Oxalá, a woman sang in Portuguese. I'd discovered that song with Cecilia, the first night we slept together, and though it wasn't melancholic, I felt the weight of sadness on my chest. I turned on my belly and closed my eyes, hid my head under a pillow while the woman kept singing in my head.
* * *
During my first days in Sweden I barely thought of her. Too much to see, too many parties with Hermeto and Frida. One day I went to Sødermalm to see the Annie Leibowitz exhibition and stayed at the museum until my eyes hurt. Later I went for a stroll and had a kannelboll at a coffeeshop where girls carrying large sketchbooks sat outside, drinking apple juice and squinting at the sun. I knew where Cecilia worked, or at least I thought I knew; the internet never fails.
On my way to the metro I stopped at a 7eleven to buy a bottle of water. Two women entered and I felt a shiver when I heard them talking, the intimation of something known but hidden beneath consciousness. They stood a few meters away, choosing a pack of gum or liquorice; from the corner of my eye I noticed one of them was a brunette. I waited for the change, trying to keep my eyes on the counter. As I was pushing the door I thought of turning my head, a quick glimpse over my shoulder. But I was too afraid.
The next morning I got an email. One line.
Last night I dreamed of you. Just wanted to check, are you all right?
It had been Cecilia at the shop. This was her way of saying she'd seen me and felt curious. In matters of the heart she never took risks, never dared put herself out there without first knowing that she was liked or wanted, let alone show her feelings.
I deleted it. After all, I had promised Hermeto. I pretended like nothing had happened; my inbox was empty. I went out and walked around in the old city, checked the Opera schedule, bought a newspaper. Sitting on a bench I opened the Culture section and found myself re-reading paragraphs, flipping through the pages without registering anything. After three attempts at trying to concentrate I gave up. It just wasn't in me not to answer, I couldn't be like her. I stood up and walked back to the apartment.
On the net I looked up the name of the company and called her at work. When she answered her voice sounded flat, devoid of interest. I could hear typing on a keyboard.
“It's Paulo,” I said. “I'm in Stockholm.”
The typing stopped.
For a moment I could hear my own breathing. I said, “If it's a bad time –”
“Just a second.”
I heard steps and a door being closed. Then she said, “Paulo?” She laughed a little. “God, you sound the same.”
“I arrived a couple days of ago, still a bit jet-lagged. Hadn't had the chance yet to... anyway, how are you?”
I covered the speaker with my hand and breathed out.
“I'm okay,” she said. “I changed roles at work so it's a bit crazy but I like it. Will you be in town for a few days?”
“Only one more weekend. Flying Monday night.”
And then, as if we hadn't been out of touch for years, she said, “Do you have dinner plans for Thursday?” She paused. “What am I saying, you probably have –”
There was silence.
After a moment she said, “There's a vegetarian restaurant I like, not far from Slussen. Do you know the area?”
When we hung up I felt dizzy, euphoric, for no reason, really, because she was married, with two children. It was clear she'd moved on with her life.
That night I took a long shower and tried not to think of her but my body wasn't listening. Every part, every inch seemed to be yearning. And in my head, lingering, the same chords, the soft voice of that woman singing, Oxalá meu futuro aconteça.
Dinner was at an all-you-can-eat place called Emil's. I arrived early and found a table at the back, in one corner, where the spotlight didn't work. I sat there thinking, Will she look a lot different? It'd been a long time, almost nine years but beauty, was it really that important? I’d always found her stunning, her long neck, her lips, her brown-reddish hair. But that wasn't nearly half of what made her attractive. She looked at you as if she were reading a page, aware of all its imperfections, and didn't care. A gaze that made you feel there was no need to hide the part of you no one had known of.
The room was getting busier and I saw several women arrive, some of them looking annoyed, evasive when I tried to meet their eyes.
When she arrived I was unprepared, my eyes fixed on my phone.
“Hope I'm not late.”
“Oh, hi,” I said, and stood up, my chair screeching against the floor. Without thinking I kissed her on the cheek, then the other, my body acting all on its own; it'd come back, the routine of life in Brussels.
“I found this table,” I said. “But we can go upstairs.”
“No, this is fine.”
She took her jacket off. Her neck, her shoulders, they looked the same, the pale skin sprinkled with freckles, some of them reddish. Her face, however, seemed different, especially around her mouth and eyes, but in my view, that made her even more appealing.
She sat down.
“So,” she said and put her forearms on the table. “How have you been?” She exhaled, gazing at me. “You picked the right time. We haven't had this weather in years.”
“It's gorgeous. This morning I went for a walk to Årsta skog. So peaceful.”
She was smiling, her lashes thick and bent upwards, a shade of violet coloring her eyes lids. I told her about my short films and documentaries, about trying to spend more time with my parents, the places we'd traveled to. I mentioned the screenplay and how it was about to be auctioned.
“That's amazing,” she said, and for a moment I thought she'd say something else but she just sat there, watching me, her head tilted. She didn't seem to blink.
I looked away.
“Are you hungry?” I said, and nodded towards the food.
We walked over to the table where all the plates lay and I got a whiff of her perfume; it was the one I'd bought for her, a souvenir from the long weekend we'd had in Paris. I saw her standing there in profile, the shape of her mouth, how her silver top fitted her breasts, her lean trunk. I had to see her again, but how? The wedding, yes, I'd ask her to come with me. I knew Hermeto would be disappointed but I couldn't help it. This was stronger than me.
We brought our plates back to the table.
I asked about her parents, her family, did she miss anything from her life before having kids.
“No,” she said. “But I've slowed down, that's for sure. Things change and I have other priorities now.” She leaned back and chewed for a moment. As usual, she seemed to be in control of her emotions. A good old friend, that's how I felt in front of her.
“And you?” she asked. “I haven't even asked you. Do you have a family?”
“No,” I said, and brought the glass to my lips. Perhaps if I lied, if I somehow became the man she should have been with but was not available. I'd heard of women who saw single men as uninteresting, lacking in sex appeal. They often longed for what they couldn't have.
I said, “I'd like to have a family but my girlfriend isn't ready yet.”
She nodded but didn't say anything more.
It was my intention, stoking her interest, her desire for the forbidden, but there was something else. Even now I found it hard to admit it but there was a feeling of wanting to get even, of making her feel how I felt when she left, when she didn’t choose me.
She stabbed a piece of broccoli with her fork.
“She's Norwegian,” I said. “But she's been living in Rio for some time now. You know, working for Statoil.”
She smiled. “You like Scandinavians.”
“Well, in the end it's the person that matters, but yes, I guess you could say that.”
I didn't want her to think it was a substitute, a poor way of trying to replace her. We chewed in silence for a moment and I thought we were past the topic when she asked, “Are you two happy?”
I wiped the corner of my mouth with a napkin.
“We have our moments,” I said. “Lots of disagreements but we find a way around them. It makes the relationship stronger.”
She nodded and chewed. She seemed to be studying me.
“And you?” I asked. “Are you happy?”
She took a deep breath. “Sometimes it's hard to accept when life isn't the way you thought it would be. There were so many things I was certain of but …”
“More wine?” I asked.
She seemed not to hear me.
“Johann and I sleep in different beds now. Of course the kids don't know, and that's how we want it.”
In dreams, in my journals, I'd wished for this moment so many times, imagining that one day there'd be a chance, an opportunity to be together again.
I stood up.
“The curry is delicious,” I said. “Are you going for another round?”
“In a minute. Go ahead.”
I walked over to the table and looked at the plates, checked if there was something I hadn't tried yet. And in the midst of all the chattering I could hear the melody in my head again, the voice of that woman singing.
Later we had coffee and a slice of apple tart; she spoke briefly about her children, how each one had a totally different temper. At the door I helped her with her jacket, kissed her on the cheek.
“I'm glad we had the chance to see each other,” I said.
“You're leaving on Monday?”
She opened her purse and began to look for something. “Johann's taking the kids to the archipelago,” she said. “They'll be away for a week.”
She did not look at me when she said, “I was just thinking, I mean only if you want to, you could come over for dinner.”
She glanced at me, then looked down at her purse again.
Yes. In my dreams, in my notebook, that had always been my answer. Every cell in my body had begged for this, it was a gift, an answer to the evenings when no other woman had been good enough. Whenever I think of that night I realize there were other things that had changed from our time in Brussels. The roles had been reversed, the balance of power had shifted. Though invented, this time I had someone and she didn't, and sometimes emotions betray you.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not? It should be doable.”
I saw her smile. “I can cook something.”
“Already looking forward to it. There's a taxi,” I said, and raised my arm to hail it. I saw her wave at me as the taxi drove away.
The sky wasn't dark yet; splotches of red and orange washed over the clouds. I walked along the pier and looked at the horizon, at the moored boats that seemed to dance with a quiet sense of eternity. At the tip of the island I stopped to gaze at the ripples, at the light frolicking on the water. There was a moment of shattering stillness, a pause in the flow time, and all I could hear was the wind.
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