It's Chilly in Here, Don't You Think?
Lydia Fagunes Telles
Translated from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker
She slowly extricated her hand from his grip and turned toward the wall. A blank white wall, not a single picture or even a nail mark—nada. If only there were a tiny hole left from a nail she could crawl into and disappear. She suddenly remembered the small insect struggling to crawl into the lime mortar, forcing itself into a small opening before it disappeared, fleeing. It’s easier to escape when you’re an insect, she thought, and folded her hands. What’s the first thing you do after making love? was the moronic question all those morons answered on the talk shows. I light a cigarette and lie there looking at the ceiling, some said amid giggles. Others provided more detail: I throw on my boxer shorts and grab a beer from the fridge. Or chicken wings. More giggles. And the talk show host never remembered to ask how they would react in a more delicate situation, when nothing happened at all. Where was one supposed to look? She turned back toward Armando, who was propped up against the headboard, with his elbows on the pillows, smoking and listening to music with an expression of pure ecstasy. I’m nothing more than a disgusting romantic, she thought.
“Romantics are disgusting.”
“What did you say, dear? Is the music too loud?”
She covered the breast that had slipped out of the covers as she stretched her arms.
“I said that sometimes I get all romantic—imagine that, romanticism in this turning of the century. Turning, turning, everyone says ‘turn of the century,’ but ‘turning’ is more profound, don’t you think? Makes me think of stormy waters, swirling . . .”
Whistling timidly, Armando tried to follow the musical phrase that came from the stereo. He gave up when he caught sight of his hands resting idly there on top of the sheet. He bent over quickly, grabbing the glass full of whiskey he’d left on the floor.
“What I wanted to say, Kori,” he began, then took a gulp of whiskey and cleared his throat, “I think I got too emotional, you understand? I’ve gotten used to a certain type of woman I prefer to pay—no, not exactly whores,” he added, the word whore nearly spoken in a whisper. “Anyway, I was overcome with emotion and wrapped up in all that emotion, you understand?”
Kori kept gazing at the wall. Good god! And he had the nerve to ask if she could understand.
“My mother fled from reality like the devil from the cross, inventing some story that I was a very special girl. I tripped you up, darling, very special girls will only trip you up. Or don’t you think so? Ah, Armando, you’re not really going to venture another explanation, are you? Come on, handsome, let’s forget it,” she said, curling her lips with scorn. To think she should have to console him ever so subtly. And, as if that weren’t enough, be generous with him, too.
“Somewhere to be, Kori? You seem kind of tense.”
“Me, tense? No, what an idea. I promised my little munchkin I’d take him to the zoo, he wants to see the bears, but I have time.”
Later. He wanted to know what came later. He asked the question with the distracted tone of someone without any interest in the response, but she felt an anxiety pulsing beneath the surface of this distraction. What will the two of you do today, he might have asked were he a simpler man. Were he really simple, he could have said, My darling, forgive me but this was a mistake, it’s not you who should be in bed with me, it’s the wrong person, you understand? But Armando was far from a simple man, bedding your friend’s wife revealed a certain complexity of character, did it not? And a friend for which he was head-over-heels?
“What is, Kori?”
“All this,” she said with a wave of her hand. “This mess, this madness in the world, the ETs showing up by the dozens, you know, those little invaders from outer space. And it looks like these are hostile, but the dead little ET I once saw in a magazine had the face of a human being who’s very sad,” she continued, touching his bare shoulder. “My birthday is tomorrow, but Otávio wants to have dinner tonight, a birthday eve celebration.”
With my skin like wrinkled tissue paper, I must look years older, she thought, and he’s asking if I’m turning thirty? What a sweet man. Touched, she peered at him, sweet Armando. Not cynical, sweet. She stroked his chin. My poor little thing. I’m a poor thing too, all of us just poor little things. She closed her eyes. And what about the eyes of the dead, those eyes that see even beyond death? Are the dead who once loved us so much truly unable to lend any help? My mama for one would have already come to me if she could, but I suppose there’s nothing they can do. Or do they help us and we just don’t realize it?
“Tomorrow I’ll be forty-five, I’m four years younger than Otávio—aren’t you both the same age? Go on, dear, make me a whiskey, heavy on the ice,” she said, then pointed toward the stereo. “What a beautiful quartet.”
“I think Bach’s a god.”
Yet, how I ignored the most important thing, she thought, and let her hand drop back down over the bed sheet. Total oblivion, at least until the moment he answered the door and said, Kori, what a joy. Followed by an embrace without the least joy, he could have feigned it. But he didn’t. Come on in, dear. If only she’d invented some pretext as soon as she’d felt something in the air sending her signals, even suggestions. Say that Otávio showed up all of the sudden, the force of the unexpected, and for that reason you can’t stay. Or say that your son is burning up with fever, or that there was a gas leak, that’s serious, a gas leak! That the cook had breathed in gas and now she’s in the hospital, quick, say whatever but get out of there! She took off her jacket and stayed. Stayed, as if she needed to make sure, as though she had to watch Armando make the gesture he did now, picking up the album, a motion just like Father Severino raising the sacred host. In such ecstasy, revelation. So this is how it is, she repeated to herself while Armando thumbed through the pile of albums asking what she’d like to hear now, how about an opera? She barely recognized her own voice as she responded in falsetto, she had a habit of speaking in falsetto when she was being phony, Great, Armando, Carmen. He walked slowly back toward her in his elastic gait, and in a low voice, right on pitch, said, There you go, dear, Maria Callas, kissing her gently on the neck and ears, but avoiding her mouth. She became lightheaded, what am I doing here? Too late to run out of the room, Something came up completely out of the blue! She felt as though she were on stage when he began caressing her on the couch without the least bit of fervor, but could there ever be any fervor? The pillows he’d arranged carefully to make her more comfortable, the penumbra softening the embarrassment of the situation. A pathetic, pathetic, pathetic role to play. She asked for more whiskey. Conscious of the ridiculous smile etched across her face, still she attempted to help him as he tried to remove her bra, but, tripped up by the clasp and his own impatience, irritation even, he exclaimed, “What a difficult hook, Kori!” She made a point of holding the straps in her fingertips for a few extra moments, delaying in revealing her breasts, which resembled fried eggs. Cold. Armando grew irritated. And then she released the straps. Good god! She turned her head when he kissed her nipples almost without touching them. He seemed more interested in looking at her breasts than kissing them. She thought about the film she’d seen the night before, Indiana Jones, so many snares to avoid. And she’d fallen into a still bigger snare, a well-set trap to satisfy the curiosity of her lover—her lover?—who only wanted to see her freckles and bony limbs in all their glory. She recoiled. Wait, dear, my earring fell, wait! she managed to say and bent over to look for the earring among the throw pillows. Complaining about the volume, Isn’t it too loud? he rose to his feet and asked: What if we turn off the opera and put Mozart on instead? She agreed, Yes, Mozart! and quickly threw on a shirt to cover her breasts as he repeated that same gesture Father Severino used to make, just the gesture, otherwise they were completely unalike. The priest’s eyes the color of his cassock, and his watery mouth like an open wound in a macerated face, Are you Christian? Yes, I’m Christian by the grace of God. The long hours of catechism at the church with its vases and images of suffering on the altar, Father Severino also a sufferer, leaning toward the cross-eyed boy, Have you sinned in your thoughts, in your words, or in your actions? The boy veered his narrow regard toward the floor and didn’t speak, the priest persisting, nearly out of breath, Let’s go, come with me to the sacristy. Then he’d shut the door.
“Are you asleep, Kori? You’re lying there so quietly.”
“Sleeping? No, what an idea. I closed my eyes so I could hear better. Then I remembered one of the parish priests from my childhood who played Mozart on the church organ. What are you playing, mister? I asked him one day, and he said, Mozart. Then he made me repeat the name till I couldn’t forget it, Mozart, Mozart.”
“He was good to you?”
He treated the boys better, she thought, and rolled the ice cube, now reduced to a sliver, across her tongue. She crushed it between her teeth.
“I guess so, I’m not really sure. I know that one day he vanished from the city, something happened at the church and he disappeared. An older priest replaced him, Father Pitombo. But it was from the first one that I learned you can’t look at the host because the host is the flesh of God. I’d always pretend not to look, I’d lower my head, but as soon as the priests got distracted, I’d sneak a peek, trying to see if God was really there.”
“I don’t know,” she said and kept her gaze on him. What about Otávio? Did he know about this love? Evidently yes, but he let himself be loved, he was so vain. And rather cynical. He only liked women, but he enjoyed the admiration. To each his own diversions, her English grandmother would say while plucking her harp. “My grandmother knew how to play the harp. So beautiful!”
“No, dear, the harp. My grandmother was ugly. All the women in my family are ugly.”
Ugly and rich. But never losing faith in their illusions, letting go of their illusions—they’d never! Even I, this sad excuse for a woman, fell hopelessly for this gorgeous man, all the while hoping that he, hopelessly in love with another, understand? A special case, as my mother would say. Very special. And if I were a man? Would he fall for me then? No, he wouldn’t, as a man I’d be the same disaster and Armando was an aesthete. Perhaps he would like to hear news about Otávio? I’ll give him at least this small pleasure, then, she thought and then felt like laughing.
“Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar,” she murmured as she pulled the sheet up into ruffles until it covered her neck. “It’s a quotation, Armando.”
He cheerfully leaned toward the woman who now avoided him.
“You recite some famous quote, I suppose it’s famous, and then you lie there hiding from me.”
“I’m not hiding, Armando, I’m cold. It’s chilly in here, don’t you think?”
“I’ll go get a blanket.”
She grabbed him by the wrist.
“There’s no need, dear, I’ll have one last sip of whiskey and then get up,” she said, and shook the glass until the ice cubes settled at the bottom of the glass. He made a face like thunder, but was that fair? To be used as a bridge so he could somehow reach the other, a bridge? And not even that. He only wished to see up close the woman with whom this other had his orgasms. Very few, to be certain. But had they not had a child together? A scrawny child of weak blood whose father, an architect, treated him with the same disappointment with which he viewed a poorly constructed building. No inspiration, her grandmother the harpist would say. She pointed toward the other room. “The telephone is ring-
ing, Armando. Aren’t you going to answer it?”
He rose slowly. He sensed he was being watched, and put himself on display even in the tiny act of slipping on the robe that had been strewn across the armchair. She followed him with her gaze. He’d closed the curtains when she first arrived, leaving only a blurry lamp in the corner, taking all precautions necessary so the ugly little duckling would remain mostly hidden while the swan received all the illumination it deserved. This was a strange but sweet swan. Would she always have to go on giving thanks for all this sweetness? For how long? It sounded better in Latin, but she’d forgotten the words. But she remembered so many other things, for example, the eve of her wedding day.
The bathtub was nearly overflowing, she had water up to her ears and could hear through the half-open door, her mother going on and on, My little Kori is going to make such a special bride! Special, she repeated, bringing her mouth just above the surface, inhaling the steam as she contemplated her small, wilted, reclusive breasts. The sex of a wretched girl, the patchy hairs bordering the slit between those legs thin as twisted noodles softened in warm water. She sat in a panic in the bathtub, crossing her arms, Mom! Come quick, Mom, she screamed. Quick! Her mother came running, then stopped in the doorway, staring, paralyzed by fear. She pulled her daughter from the bathtub with the same vigor with which she’d rescued her as an infant in the middle of a bath, purple with cold. What is it, Kori? What’s all this crying, my little girl, did something happen? She wrapped her in a towel. Your blood pressure must have dropped, Kori, is it your blood pressure? The woman was in panic and, at the same, indignant, What happened, my dear? Did somebody hurt you? she asked over and over as she rubbed camphor oil on her chest, just as she’d done to rouse her daughter during childhood bouts of anemia. Kori wiped her eyes and nose in the towel, Oh, Mama, I don’t know! Otávio doesn’t love me, he’s not capable of loving me, he is so ambitious, so concerned with having success, with having children and look at this, just look at this! she exclaimed, opening her legs and pointing to her small, pale slit. You see that? Not so much as an egg would pass through here, much less a head!
“Well, it passed through,” she said, turning to Armando, who was returning from the other room. “Is everything alright, dear?” she asked, and before he could give a reply, she threw off the covers with a defiant shrug of her shoulders and rose to her feet, naked. “That’s the bathroom over there? I wanted to take a quick shower.”
He stood still, looking at the woman who’d thrown off the covers and now crossed the room with equal pride, a playful look in her wide-open eyes, Oh, yeah? she seemed to ask as she passed closely by his side.
“Does the hot shower handle control the hot water, dear? I only ask because at our house, the shower handles are switched.”
“Switched?” he repeated as he pulled tight the belt of his robe. He’d not yet recovered from his shock. He followed her to the bathroom with a confused downward gaze. He opened the white bathroom cabinet. “Here are the towels, Kori. And the bars of soaps, have a look, there are various colors and scents, I’d like you to feel comfortable.”
“But I do feel comfortable,” she said. She had a complacent look as she viewed her nude body in the mirror. Then, she directed her gaze toward him.
“Your bathroom, Armando. So much light, so bright, it’s awful.”
“Awful? Wait a minute . . .”
“No, please, don’t turn off any lights, leave it like it is. A glorious bathroom.
Happy. Look how many colognes you have here!”
“Next time, you’ll find your brand here, OK?”
“And how do you know what brand of cologne I use?”
“Is it not the same as Otávio’s?” he asked and then immediately blushed. He tried to cover his tracks, showing her the pair of slippers, look at the slippers! She put on the slippers which were like two boats on her feet and stood in front of him. She sniffed the green soap she held between her hands. She lowered her damp eyes to the soap, what a beautiful thing love is.
“All right, to the shower, then. I still need to make it to the bears and then to dinner, a full schedule.”
He suddenly grew more energetic. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he told her how he’d bought a case of the best wine the night before, wouldn’t it go great with dinner?
“For your birthday dinner, Kori. If I truly am invited, I don’t want to be a nuisance, you understand?”
“Of course you’re invited, dear! But only bring one bottle. Our wine cellar is already too full. You can show up around ten. Oh, good, you’ll help lighten the mood a bit. This week the mood at home was so heavy.”
She softly kissed his bare chest and then covered it with his robe.
“I think we’ve reached the point where we can speak frankly. Or don’t you think so? As you know, our marriage was purely one of convenience, but I fell hopelessly in love. Hopelessly. And my beloved Otávio wanted nothing more than a good deal, and he got it. As you well know, with time, things fell into their natural place; if my dear mama were still alive she’d say this was a very special marriage. He needed money, and I needed love. Now he has all the money he wanted. I paid a high price, I agree, but don’t we all end up paying for our emotions? Which, after all is said and done, didn’t last long. Since Junior’s birth we no longer have so-called sexual relations. We decided it that way, calmly. If the mood at home is a bit gloomy it’s because now there’s a new development . . . ”
He looked at her reflection in the mirror, his gaze wild with curiosity.
“A new development? What new development?”
“He has a lover, dear. Otávio has a lover, and she’s pregnant.”
Now it was her turn to look at him in the mirror. From the bedroom, the concerto appeared to be coming to an end, the violins always became louder during the apotheosis.
“A lover? Do I know her?”
“No, dear, you don’t know her, she’s not from our circle, she’s a pretty little thing, but simple, a secretary, you know the story. And he’s crazy for her.”
“That’s extraordinary, Kori, I never would have guessed. That’s extraordinary,” he repeated and then suddenly, livid, “And she’s pregnant?”
“Pregnant. But don’t worry, dear, we’ll make it through this crisis without the slightest change, relax, everything will go on as it was. Otávio, as you know, loves money, and I love his company, and we get along. No one’s fooling anyone here, and that’s what’s important, it’s a silent game. But everyone plays clean. I think this birthday supper is going to be wonderful! And please, turn off this concerto, it’s too sad, throw on another opera, I want to hear Maria Callas screaming her lungs out!”
Trembling, he turned around. Now, with a robe that was too big on him and a hunched back, it looked as if he’d suddenly grown old. She moved out from mirror and turned the shower handles. She took one more quick look toward the bedroom where he half-walked, half-staggered toward the stereo.
“What a wonderful shower!” she said, lifting her arms. She opened her mouth and let loose a choked laugh, the cough interrupting her laughter. “Wonderful!” she repeated and began to laugh again because she could imagine him blinded by despair, unable to find the record. “I want Carmen!” she hurried him, and then suddenly became serious, watching the water mixed with her own splintered voice run down the basin before disappearing into the drain.