It happens every day. It has to be among strangers: that’s where things emerge. It’s how they become known. Stories are the shape we give things to pass the time in line at the bank, on the bus, at the bakery counter.
I asked, what do you do for a living? And he told me, I’m retired. Twenty years ago, at a motel café table, I found the answer unhelpful. His wife, all in white, looking like a nurse — an impression aided by her husband’s physical defect — worked in the navy. I was a school principal. Jobs help us make assumptions about people, the same as wrinkles on a face, the color of someone’s skin, the clothes a person wears, the way they butter their bread. “Retired” tells you nothing. A retired doctor, retired garbage man, retired president, retired manicurist, not simply “retired.” But today, yes, now I understand: retired is right.
Look, I was tortured. They say I snitched on a comrade who later died by soldiers’ bullets. I didn’t snitch — I almost died in the room where I would’ve snitched, but I didn’t talk. They said I talked and Armando died. I was released two days after his death and they let me stay on as the school principal.
Eliana was in Paris. Our daughter, Lígia, was here with my mother, in this empty house which then was full. After I was imprisoned they arranged Eliana’s trip to Paris. They didn’t arrange for me to go anywhere. Eliana died. My father, sick and retired. My sister, Jussara, still a girl, was finishing school and doing a free test prep, studying all day. The family could never really count on José. Eliana died in Paris, she’s buried there. I talked to her on the phone after they released me. It was summer here, and she was in Paris, trembling with cold, and complaining a lot about it — she wanted to see her daughter, bury her brother, take care of her mother — her voice trembled on the broken public phone I would use to get a connection without paying. I imagined her with purple lips, inadequately clothed. She couldn’t come back, and I understood she couldn’t take it, she always felt the cold more than I did — but she couldn’t come back, and that was all that remained of her.
Armando, my classmate, was her only brother. Luiza said that Eliana died of pneumonia without ever finding out that I’d said what I never said. I don’t trust Luiza. How does someone die of pneumonia in Paris? She stopped eating. Yes, but weren’t there friends around to feed and clothe her? I was furious. Luiza told me to remain strong for the revolution — she hesitated, her metallic voice taking on the electricity of the military shocks, and to make things worse, I’d gone deaf in my right ear — no matter what happened to Armando you’re still one of us, not everyone can withstand it, not even the strongest, Eliana died without knowing, don’t worry. Doña Esther went crazy over the death of her children and wanted to hang on to her grandchild. I didn’t go crazy and I couldn’t touch Lígia. I found her baby babble intolerable.
Francisco Augusto, who’d recently left med school, reset the bones in my fingers, taped them to splints that I tore off a week later, confirmed permanent deafness in my right ear, and recommended a dentist friend I should see about my two lost teeth. But I didn’t go. I didn’t tell him about my nightmares or the impossibility of sleeping for more than fifteen minutes straight. Nightmares, we all have them, and I couldn’t go insane.
Doña Esther killed herself, but not without paying us one last visit, embracing her granddaughter, Lígia, whispering in her ear a final good-bye mantra and looking at me with disappointment: Armando trusted you even more than he trusted me.
At the café table in that inland motel, the girl from the navy told us they were newlyweds. Eliana had been dead for ten years and I said, I’m a school principal, and the husband said, “retired.” I could have also said biologist, or linguist, or educator. I had a full set of teeth again and was spending the holidays with Lígia and her friend Francisca in the “historic cities” of Minas Gerais.
As though only some cities were historic. The present history of São Paulo is so violent that it occupies space in possible pasts and futures. Unable to look forward or backward or to the side, we stare at our feet. When Lígia was 10, São Paulo still had the possibility of history. We’d go to the São Bento Monastery, the Pátio do Colégio, the Ipiranga Museum, the Consolação Cemetery. Usually she could go by herself to buy bread at the bakery. She knew Doña Maria the grocer, Senhor Ademar the shoemaker, she played with the neighborhood kids. I’ve been the victim of an urban pastoral that I don’t like at all. My lack of belief in the impossible is yielding. I’d rather not believe it and argue with Lígia about it. The move to São Carlos is the next phase in my career. I’m not giving up, as she alleges. I’m going to dedicate myself to Lucilia’s project at the university, her study of language-acquisition difficulties. Lígia thinks I should have accepted the post at the Department of Education, or at least continued directing the program in professional development and responding to requests for talks and seminars. I’d like her to come with me. The university there is very good — her husband would have no trouble getting in and, more important, my little granddaughter Marta could go out by herself to buy our bread. Not yet, she’s only 3, but she’d come with me, she’d get to know the baker, the neighbors, she’d pay attention to the color of the sky, the winds that bring the rain. No, there’s nothing pastoral, I try to tell myself, about this empty house.
We finally sold the house. I have a few months left before I have to give it up. I’m looking over the pieces of furniture that are coming with me. José, Jussara, and Lígia took what they wanted after my mother’s death. Jussara took only a few small things: some shirts, the oil painting of a little boy drawing, and the vanity mirror in the ugly mahogany frame, the kind there were in so many homes on Rua Teodoro Sampaio. It was Vóana’s but beloved by my mother — it was where she stuck little notes to remind herself what she had to do the next day. Jussara grew up to be a beautiful, tall young woman, very thin like our father, but even so she took some of her short, plump mother’s shirts. She said she’d wear them around the house. I never went to visit her: she raised her family in London, is a respected psychiatrist, her children speak Portuguese with an accent. But she says she wears Doña Joana’s clothes whenever she’s home alone, especially a wool-gauze dressing gown that our mother often wore. I had to shrink Jussara a bit in my mind, imagine her compressed, or else the gown was too short on her, too indecent to be something from Doña Joana’s collection.
My mother was an excellent seamstress. She acquired important clientele, people from outside the neighborhood. “Important” was how she put it, and we knew who she meant, something that wouldn’t happen today. I wouldn’t know how to place names or faces or occupations if someone said “important clientele” to me now. Obviously they weren’t people from the neighborhood. When I went to elementary school, I had to take two buses and get off downtown, and I could tell it wasn’t enough to be from outside the neighborhood to be considered important. My mother treated all her customers the same way, their clothes all done with the same care, the prices fixed. The importance of the customer only altered the quality of the cloth and my mother’s patience. The important ones — my mother would say as she prepared dinner at the stove, as José and I did our homework at the kitchen table and Jussara, the baby, ten years younger than José, slept in her crib — are the most distrustful. They explain every detail because they’re afraid I don’t know the names of the stitches. My mother found this lack of trust to be reasonable: shoddy workmanship is rampant across the world. Ignorance has no fixed address, no mark on its forehead — she’d listen attentively and humbly repeat the details. It’s just, she’d say, that some of the important customers use the terms incorrectly: they want a ruffled skirt but they say pleated, they want a three-quarter-length sleeve and they say half sleeve. You can’t correct them, mainly because it doesn’t get you anywhere, poor things, so assured in their mistakes, so I have to show them with fabric how it will look, find a photo of a similar model. Only then can I know for sure what they want. But one must understand that these people never had the opportunity to learn.
The late Doña Joana was a very intelligent but unambitious person. She regarded both stupidity and ambition as birth defects or characteristics acquired through mishaps in life, and felt it necessary to have as much patience with such people as when dealing with the blind and the deaf.
Armando liked Doña Joana. We were classmates in elementary school and again in high school. He’d come have lunch with me in the weeks leading up to our exams and we’d study together until late afternoon. Francisco Augusto was Armando’s classmate in med school. He’s a good doctor — as Armando would have been, I suspect. I studied biology, and after that education, then linguistics, and now I’m going to São Carlos. Armando used to talk to my mother. About seasonings, recipes, little things about the city and its characters. Some dishes were renamed “Armando’s.” We’d had them all before: pasta with meatballs, sautéed squash, baked rice without olives but with real corn, toast with creamed spinach and minced hard-boiled egg. Only now they were Armando’s meatballs, Armando’s rice, the same old thing, but under new ownership. José, Jussara, our father, and I — we didn’t have dishes named after us, although we ate them with pleasure. I think that sort of praise wasn’t part of our language — maybe that’s what it was. Sometimes I got caught up with something downtown and stayed there, annoying Armando. He didn’t want to miss out on Doña Joana’s food. Later he learned how to get there himself and would go on his own. He’d say he could only study law while listening to the tac-tac of the sewing machine.
I’m healthy, the illnesses I get come and go without steady medication, I cost very little. My mother and father are dead. Jussara has taken care of herself for a while now, Lígia and her husband have found their footing, Renato is no more, and so with my retirement money I have more than I need. I don’t have a car with taxes or registration, no microwave or any other useless machine, only a computer that crashes sometimes, meaning I then have to call the ever-stranger Alexandre, the grandson of my ancient neighbor, Doña Eulália, and he comes over and futzes with it and forgets to charge me. The house, which is old, needs constant work: a burst pipe, burned-out wiring, a door that squeaks but won’t shut anymore. It’s all going to hell, so I have an agreement with Tobias, a thrifty handyman. He tells me gently the house needs a complete renovation, the pipes have to be replaced, the wiring requires this and that and who knows what else. I bravely resisted for these past thirty years, ever since I got out of prison, ever since Eliana died and I moved back here. At first I had my father’s firm support. But after he died I had to keep up the fight alone. Lígia, Jussara, and my mother all took Tobias’s side and wanted to do the renovation, the remodeling, change everything, but my team prevailed and the house was allowed to age in peace. Now a developer will tear it down, like all the other old homes nearby, and many families will live off this plot, including Lígia’s. I put my part of the sale toward an apartment for her and there was still enough left over for a small house with a yard in São Carlos.
José was here a few days ago, he slept three nights in our old bedroom. I sleep in our parents’ old room. He came to meet with his editor and with people from the newspaper and the magazines he writes for. He saved the last night for us to eat together. That was how he put it: I left Friday free for us to have dinner, you have any plans? Aside from sleeping, no sir, I said, like I was one of the neighborhood clients responding to one of the important clients. He found this funny — he knows I’m too lazy to go out at night, the farmers’ hours I keep. We barely ran into each other on Wednesday and Thursday. He has his own key and knows where to find sheets and towels, and despite his criticisms he makes do with my jam-jar glasses, my mismatched plates and bent silverware. It was the last month of the professional-development courses for teachers, and I still needed to show up for meetings at the DOE to prep for next semester and to attend commencement ceremonies. Good-byes were said, homage paid, as if I were leaving for another planet whose wizened inhabitants, having forsaken the flux of São Paulo, are put out to pasture. The past tense triumphed in each tribute, and I left more irritated than when I arrived. This live burial annoyed me. It was an elegant and efficient way to stop listening to what I have to say, of reading what I write with glazed eyes. How can we give courses in professional development if we’re the ones who need to be brought up to speed? I don’t believe in this any longer. But Professor — with that awful little voice of respect that I can’t stand — it’s what’s practical. I think I got tired of the practical, it doesn’t interest me anymore. Anyway I’m finishing something off with this move: it’s certainly an ending. I am killing something, I don’t know what, maybe ambition, since Doña Joana couldn’t stop life’s mishaps from infecting me with it.
I went to the university early on Friday to clear out my office, submit grades for all the stragglers, sign off on all the necessary bureaucratic things to formally dissociate myself, and have lunch with Teresa. Early that morning, when I put the bread and newspaper on the kitchen table with an automatic gesture whose predicate is to turn toward the stove, take a pot, fill it with water, set it to boil, et cetera, I gave a start, and the bread and the newspaper nearly broke two teacups, two saucers, and two small plates from the old china set José took after our mother died, which were now placed neatly on white napkins. There was a vase with flowers and a package wrapped in gold paper with a note from my brother. My first reaction was to look around to make sure I wasn’t in the wrong house. Then, irritation with this invasion of my breakfast ritual, with my coffee in a glass, sweetened coffee in the pot, my baguette with butter and crumbs on the old table. In the rage and confusion of these last days, as so many around me were calling them, I pushed it all to the corner of the table, took out my cup, pulled apart my bread, and read my newspaper. The sports page, an old habit of Armando’s that I’d taken up over the past few years, as though I’d always done it. I threw the package from my brother on my bed and took the note with me to read on the bus, en route to the university.
Mine, mine, mine. Like a little child learning the language of the tribe, I find myself in the acquisitive phase of a new language. At the same time the old one, the one I knew and used, seems sterile. It was now my cup, my bread, my rage, my 64 years of age. As though I needed once more to name and own what I was taking with me. Return to the first person and to the possessive, the twin juvenile plagues that modernity bequeathed us and against which I had struggled sincerely. José’s note spoke of the same necessity, but in a completely opposite sense. He wrote of reminiscing and I think of creating; he wrote of discovering and I need to be establishing. The note brought me peace, banished the childish indignation I’d suffered in recent days that had obstructed my ability to reflect and left me frivolous, orphaned, left to pure reaction. His Machadian* tone — which José cultivates in a way that borders on plagiarism yet somehow remains, paradoxically, his own — revived my happiness in the same way that, when absorbed in some specific and complex composition, we’re surprised by the sound of birdsong. Maybe the bird had been singing for a while, maybe its song just penetrated the machinations of logic. But we perceive it suddenly, born alongside our own unexpected joy at hearing it. It pulls us out of ourselves, destroys the train of thought we’d been following without leaving a trace, leaves us only the pleasure of listening to the bird. When we realize we’re happy and have lost our train of thought, we sigh, resigned to the idea of starting over again, and the solution appears as clearly and as unexpectedly as the birdsong. As José wrote, “This is what happens to me, as I go about remembering and shaping the construction or reconstruction of myself” (Machado, as written by José).
As I go about remembering, what a beautiful thing. I need to reread Machado, retrieve the unexpected things I no longer remember. Unlike José, who tries like Dom Casmurro to construct a past that will be kind to him in the present, I look for my errors, I kick stones and send the cockroaches running, I walk through spiderwebs that spread across my face and ask every smug milestone I’ve passed, What purpose do you serve in my life? Did you manage to hold firm, emit light, make noise, serve at least as a pillar to sustain the person who made you, or are you already so spoiled by applause that the flick of a finger could send you tumbling over a cliff into the calm and muddy river of the satisfied?
Inside the gold package tossed on my bed were the first chapters of a new book that José was writing, the first, I read in the note, of an autobiographical cycle. It was an advance copy and he wanted my opinion. Although it was artfully written, the request was sincere; it moved me, but I couldn’t help but find it amusing. José had already exposed himself and our family in his first book, his most experimental and the one I like best. None of the others is straightforwardly bad — they all have their charm and depth. But for all the styles he’s tried — detective stories, historical fiction, even his critical essays — there’s something predictable that I find off-putting. I know where he wants to end up: they are, in fact, long explanations in which his sexuality plays an increasingly important role. But his note moved me. I think it’s the first direct request I’ve received from my brother in many years. Even in his most dire straits, he never asked us for anything, never let down his guard or allowed us to help him. He moved away a long time ago. He was a hippie in Arembepe, saw a flying saucer somewhere in the central plains, went backpacking in Machu Picchu, got stoned in California, until, like a holdout convert, he became an academic, a man of letters, got a fellowship in Germany, then in Spain, and finally returned to live in Curitiba. After our father’s death he came to visit more frequently. When our mother got sick, five years ago, he moved back home, and for the two months before she died he took care of her. You couldn’t call it a reconciliation, because there’d never been a fight. Reencounter is the right word, from José’s point of view.
Me, I lived practically my entire life with Doña Joana. I could never reencounter her. The truth is our mother could never reencounter José either. Her son had gone through so many transformations since he left home at 17 that her affection for that matured man was the kind you might feel for the friend of a dead son who reminds you, with his presence, his age, and his stories, of the dead child who no longer exists. “The teacups,” the note continued, “are part of the set we used to use when we were little, and which I took with me when we split up her things. I thought of all the reasons they’re so special to me and why I wished to share with you, my older brother, something that time divided, but all these reasons would deeply annoy you, no matter how sincere. We’ve never spoken about it, but I can imagine your opinions about keepsakes — I’m aware of your aversion to junk and your preference for coffee in a jar. I ask only that you accept them, with my sincere affection.”
I agreed to have lunch with Teresa because I enjoy her company, a feeling I think is mutual and that allows us to enjoy an understanding, stimulating even when it comes to discussing academic concerns. This time there was no concern, just an end-of-year lunch for two. We agreed to meet in the department café and then go somewhere nearby so we could eat well, with some peace and quiet. She was with a young woman who looked like an undergrad student of mine. I don’t remember much about her, only that she was charming — but then there were so many. I didn’t catch her name, Ercília or Marília, or something like that. It turned out she was writing a novel that took place in the ’60s and ’70s, when she was only a child, and she wanted to interview me. She’d already interviewed others and Teresa had suggested my name. Her protagonist was more or less my age, was imprisoned, became an educator. She needed information about the period, about the education system, the details of daily life in public schools and prison. She said she’d already read my books. I think she was studying pedagogy or anthropology, I didn’t quite catch it. She didn’t know that I’d been a prisoner, had participated in the movement. I didn’t participate, I said. But Teresa made a pouty face, like I was being difficult or modest. I didn’t want to upset Teresa, but the situation really bothered me. The girl sensed this and was intimidated. She’s interesting, this girl. I mean. I mean, no, that’s just it, she’s pretty, serious, and this wasn’t idle curiosity. Finally Teresa asked her to say more about her book. The girl said she’d just started working at a public school and was impressed by the “aggressive emptiness” she felt between the teachers. In the novel she wanted to portray a time when education still seemed to have an explosive meaning, a detonating force — and where this eventually led. She’d already read books about the history of education, about the repression of the resistance movements, she’d seen the films, heard the songs, but she said she needed to interview people because her book wasn’t about politics or education, but about something she wasn’t quite certain she understood yet. Now that I think about it, she’s pretty bold, this girl. I knew exactly what she was talking about, because I’d done all this plenty of times already, and I don’t like being the raw material that somebody else sucks dry.
But at the time I found it charming. This shameless inquiry into my life, so transparent, utilitarian. She said she needed to know the lingo from the time period, details and nuances that you can’t get from reading books. She admired my ideas, that I understood, but ideas weren’t what she wanted — none of them mattered. She wanted my age. To ferret out words from those years that still lingered in the speech of older men. A Trojan horse, this gift from Teresa. And I can’t get it out of my head, this girl and her interview. She even ended up with my phone number, though she hasn’t called yet. I hope she doesn’t call. It’s a bad time. I told her I hardly remembered anything and she said she wanted those, too, broken memories, the scrambled view of what remained — what was vanishing in the midst of all that aggressive emptiness.
She said she’d like to read some of my more recent work before doing the interview, and Teresa mentioned the reports and letters I’d sent not long before to the Department of Education, in which I’d offered my unsolicited opinion about the latest direction teaching had taken. I ended up telling the girl I’d send them to her, even though they weren’t public documents. What was her name? Josefina? Maria? There’s no way I would call Teresa to ask. When the girl calls, she’ll say her name. It’s not good, this business of forgetting even recent things. I jotted down her email someplace, but I think it was only her initials. I wrote it down so I would remember to send her the letters and reports, but I haven’t had time.
I’m disorganized, forgetful, which is why I created a rather rigid methodology, external to me and from which I wouldn’t be able to escape. I became what appeared to be a punctual, organized, and responsible person. Appears is the right word, but without its insinuation of falsehood, which is connected and consecutive to superficial or incomplete knowledge. He appears generous, but once you really get to know him — you can’t even imagine. This would actually be a good way to teach Portuguese. Take an expression at random, one that arises in a trivial classroom conversation, when we’re not — when we appear not to be — teaching. In those innumerable instants when the teacher speaks about their spouse or against the government, or when a student — but rarely does the trivial conversation come from the students. In those moments we can interrupt our speech and call attention to the word being used. It’s the birdsong. Or the appearance of a priest in a church when we’re only there to see the stained-glass windows. That moment in which we perceive another dimension to the thing we’re doing, the object we’re examining, the instruments we’re using. The value of error, this is precisely the value of error. Yes, because the birdsong in the middle of muddling through Kant is certainly an error, as much as when a flesh-and-blood priest appears right beside you as you’re going on about the Baroque. It skews our thought, distracts. And such is the magic of errors: we return from them changed. Like an errant trajectory, suddenly on the wrong street. Only then do we stop to think about the general design of the streets and their layout and determine the most interesting path, which may or may not be the shortest. Then the teacher uses the word apparently in an unusual way, stops and says, how curious, we sometimes use appear to say that something is false, that it seems to be something that in reality it isn’t. But when you think about it, we also use it to say that something appears to us in such a way, in such a form, and it’s the only way we know it, the way in which it appears. Because we aren’t sure if it will remain, over time, in the same way that we see it now. Or perhaps we suspect it will be able to change, so we say that it now appears. But could it be that when we say that something appears, what we really mean is that it’s false? Or do we only use it to express our hesitation, one that may not be motivated in any way by the thing in itself? And then we can open the dictionary together with the students to find out if apparent has any relation to parent.
I was always favorable to the presence, in every classroom, of a Portuguese dictionary, an etymological dictionary, a Latin dictionary, a Greek dictionary, a common grammar, and a dictionary of verb and prepositional correspondences. And not in some corner of the room, but on my desk, to be handled at all times, without formality.
I say I appear organized because that is how I’ve become in relation to the world, without having changed my nature. Thus: apparently. I am organized to everyone who comes into contact with me and apparently organized only to myself. But I didn’t send those report-letters to that girl of Teresa’s. Not because I lack discipline, or because she didn’t deserve it. I left it to the end of the week to determine what I would send her, and ever since, I’ve hesitated. The dinner with José came in between.
Eliana died at 25. Tomorrow she’d be 59. I don’t think there was a suicidal vein in the family — Doña Esther’s melancholy was more Lusitanian than depressive. She was widowed young, with small children, and sold her father-in-law’s bakery, which her bohemian husband had inherited and never knew what to do with. She bought two houses to rent out and went to work for a Catholic ladies’ association. As Doña Joana would say, she had the opportunity to learn, and learn she did. When I was young, I was envious of Armando, of his mother who worked away from home, of his father’s absence; he had the family apartment to himself and all the responsibilities of the man of the house. It all seemed modern and adult in comparison with our little clan huddled under Doña Joana’s wing and my father’s black umbrella. When I first met him, Armando would go to get his sister at her day school every evening at five. I never heard him complain the way I did on the few occasions my mother asked me to watch Jussara. He didn’t regard what he did for his mother as a favor; it was part of his household duty, like going to the bank to pay the bills. The house was an apartment and it was his: he had a set of keys, his mother consulted him on the best way to manage their domestic budget. In my house there was no space beside Doña Joana to assume such a role.
Compared with José, I was apparently a very independent young man, an appearance that my contact with Armando cracked open to reveal a mama’s boy. It was a bitch, but nothing could be done about it. When I looked after Jussara so my mother could go out, or when I brought her some kind of fastening from the notions store downtown on the way home from school, she’d tousle my hair in return, the smile on her face expressing pride in her little boy, all grown up. It was so different from the way Doña Esther treated Armando when he gave her the receipts from the bills he paid at the bank, along with her change. She didn’t thank him. She sighed, remarked on how costly life was, she praised God that she had a job and, unlike the women she served in the institution where she worked, she didn’t depend on others for help. The scholarship Eliana received to study in the Catholic school weighed on her pride. She and Armando decided that the way to set things right was for Eliana to attend the same public school that Armando did when she got to high school. By then she’d be old enough to catch the bus by herself and make her own lunch.
Eliana, who would be 59 years old tomorrow, was passionately devoted to her brother. Armando — a loudmouth, a truant who always got away with things, a ringleader, a prankster, a mediocre center striker, a foul mouth, mediator of various factions, spokesman for all our student demands, merrymaker, glutton, and miser — he felt part of any group that life set before him, claiming the role of brother or father no matter where you put him. Eliana on the other hand belonged to only one group: her family triad. A chosen people, bearers of the mark. It was necessary to deserve it, the mark, which she daily mastered through her dedication to her studies and in the seriousness with which she measured her thoughts and actions. Francisco Augusto says that love triangles hold more love than duets. He says that the desire to defeat and dominate is what preserves it. Eliana was possessed by the obligation to serve and to live up to a certain level. She couldn’t fail. Up to the level of her mother, first of all, and then, forever and always, her brother. She wasn’t timid, submissive, or defensive. She was delicate. She had that joy of the very serious. She died without knowing, Luiza said, don’t worry.
I hesitate not because I fear the exposure of my incoherence. Retired, said the man who moved with the help of a walker and his new wife. I’m in the navy, said the wife in white, and we’re newlyweds. We don’t know anything about the people we see and when they tell us what they are — retired, in the navy — we’re surprised because without realizing it, we already knew the entirety of their lives: something inside us has woven their stories and relationships. Mainly about the things they don’t tell us. In the bakery, that pretty girl with the bags under her eyes, I think — she’s married, she’s nursing and doesn’t sleep much at night. She proudly displays her weariness and the stain of leaked milk on her low-cut dress. She has the voice of a queen and her gaze is distracted, she loves and is loved and the love flows into the bread, the butter, the milk, the baker, and transforms even the famished gaze of the little urchin on her breast into an homage to maternity — and this is how we make people known and familiar, enclosed in a story that doesn’t threaten us. When the girl in white at the motel said, I’m in the navy, she guided my thoughts, fixed a prearranged path — that of the nurse who’d used her husband’s infirmity to make herself indispensable and loved, a love always threatened by the possibility that her companion would be cured. I don’t know whether this information about her was enriching or limiting.
Life is full of surprises. I’m in the navy, said the girl in white. This cancer, it’s already taken my breasts and given me these silicone tits, it’s eating me from the inside and I want life, bread, the baker, and the desires of this little boy, said the girl from the bakery. The danger, when confronted by these surprises, is to say to ourselves, oh yes, now I understand, and to halt the process of imagination, deactivating it. To accept Navy and Cancer, to archive them in pigeonholes called Soldier and Death, is to discard, as error, Care and Maternity.
Oh, how thought betrays. Next to error, betrayal is my engine. I was going to talk about two beautiful women who attracted me, like someone who means nothing by it, only to illustrate a prosaic analogy, and I’ve returned to soldiers and death. Soldiers and death. Where along the way did I lose the dark, shining skin of my domineering nurse and the pulsing tenderness of my new mother? Soldiers and death. Left, right, left, right, march little soldier, in your soft beret. The trick is to accept these betrayals of reality and thought, incite them, remain open to receive them, but never submit to them.
— Translated by Adam Morris