At the end of August, I received a postcard. It was a picture of the city of Sevastopol, a soulless port framed by gray buildings, a generic scene, the kind with no story to tell. The card came with a message: “Onward, champion!”
Of course, Klaus had never been to Sevastopol. He’d bought the postcard online, from some site like easterneuropeanjunk.com. He knew I’d appreciate the gesture. He closed by declaring that we still had a lot of work ahead of us! That was how he wrote, with exclamation marks.
He called me and spent forever mulling over whether we needed to repaint the backstage of the place he’d found. We’d have to do something about the wiring, for sure.
He’d worked out a deal to rent the space for a month, at half price. It was small, on the ground floor of a squat in downtown São Paulo. Poetry readings and musical performances were held there. The other good news was that we’d get to keep all the box-office proceeds, and there was a chance for us to renew the arrangement if our run went well.
Before he hung up, he said that he could come by later and we could grab a drink at the bar below the overpass, if I wanted. To celebrate. I said yes. I love the beers there.
At the end of the night, Klaus likes to drink what he calls “a nice glass of wine” and eat a milanesa, preferably in some musty trattoria in Bixiga. About our work, he says, “I’ve got to be practical. Simple things lead to simple solutions, complicated things lead to madness.” When Klaus was my age—a lifetime ago, in other words—he was a German teacher. He must be in his sixties, though he looks older. His hair is dyed brown, and he sports a showy, camp mustache. His teeth are small and jagged, and he’s rather thin, especially his face, which is masked in a sickly yellow, his cheeks covered in pockmarks. He always keeps a pen in his shirt pocket. We met at the museum where I work. He used to lead a drama workshop there on Fridays. Staff can take classes for free, and I thought his sounded interesting.
Klaus had just directed a play called “Good Morning, Barabbas,” which ran for a while at a little theatre down on Rego Freitas. I didn’t see it, but an actress friend of mine told me that it was awful. Theatre people will flatter you to your face and stick a knife in your back, that’s a fact. I got a good vibe from Klaus. In class, I could tell that he knew what he was doing. One day I showed him something I’d written. A story about a mysterious relationship between a man and a woman, set in Moscow, in the eighties. The female character had my name: Nadia. The story began with Nadia in the single, lighted window on the top floor of a low-rise building, waving at the man, who was waiting in the courtyard. I liked the idea of a story that started with a wave. And I liked Nadia being up high, as if she were just out of reach. The man was older than her, and his name was Sasha. It was late afternoon. Snow was falling. Nadia came downstairs, carrying a letter. She handed it to Sasha and gave him what appeared to be instructions. He listened intently, holding the envelope in his left hand. He had no right arm. The sleeve of his overcoat hung empty. Before going back inside, Nadia glared at him. Sasha kept his head down. I wanted to explore that woman’s feeling of hatred for that man. I told Klaus that the reader would never find out the reason for Nadia’s anger. But it would be clear that Sasha had a debt to settle with her, and that was why he was there. The contents of the letter would remain a mystery until the very end, a secret that would spell doom for them both. I asked Klaus whether he thought it might work onstage. He said that it was a lousy story and clearly nothing about it worked.
I think Klaus took a shine to me. A few weeks after the course ended, he sent me an e-mail. He said that he was going to put on a new play and that he’d noticed my interest in Russia, which wasn’t entirely accurate. I didn’t know the first thing about Russia, and my story, to be perfectly honest, could have taken place anywhere in the world—but I didn’t tell him that.
We agreed to meet the next day at a café in Santa Cecília. Klaus arrived on time. He was wearing a tattered coat and a faded black shirt, which gave him a penurious appearance. He ordered a coffee. I ordered a mint tea.
He said something about the museum, how poorly the instructors were paid, and that it was unlikely he would continue teaching there. They’re a horrible bunch of people, I said. I worked for the museum’s educational program, leading guided tours for school groups and young people. Other than the girl with the shaved head who worked the cash register at the gift shop, there was nobody there I really liked. “My boss spends all day posting pictures ofart work on Instagram, you know? One of the guys who works with me is involved in cultural production—grant-writing, setting up projects—and he’s an artist himself. His work combines photography and installation, and seeks to discuss inequalities in the art establishment, to draw attention to historically overlooked groups. It’s a collection of photos of concrete barriers, and none of the things he says his work is about are actuallyinthe work, which really pisses me off. Anyway, I guess I’m kind of pissed off about everything—my dad told me that, actually—so maybe I’m being unfair.”
Klaus grinned. Coughing, he put a handkerchief to his mouth. Then he opened a small, crumpled pouch of tobacco and began to roll a cigarette. He got straight to the point: he was looking for someone to help him out. He wouldn’t be able to do all the research for the play he was starting to write, and research was the most important part. I disagreed. “Research matters as much as, I don’t know, a cherry,” I said. “A cherry in a cocktail. A cherry in a cocktail after two in the morning. Anybody who’s not a complete idiot knows that there should be only one cherry per drink and that the cherry’s only there so that it can be removed.” I was being serious, I meant it, but Klaus was amused by what I’d said. I told him that what I was interested in was writing, but I might be able to give him a hand with his research.
He looked at me, sat quietly for a moment, and then assured me that I’d get to write as well. Depending on how things worked out, I might even get a credit as his co-writer.
I didn’t believe him for a second, but, on the other hand, it didn’t seem so far-fetched. I realized then that Klaus was a lonely person. He had no money and no friends, and couldn’t count on many people.
He had done political theatre in the seventies, which was when he’d made a name for himself, or, rather, a name among theatre buffs and writer friends, which, fair enough, is still something. My dad always says I shouldn’t be so critical. But since then Klaus had kept to himself. “I got old,” he said. “The world changed. I’ve never been part of the in-crowd, and now I’m paying the price.” Klaus had spent the past few decades putting on shows for virtually no one in grungy theatres downtown. But he was happy that way. All you can do is be happy that way. He took another sip of coffee, and then he rested his hands on the table and began to tell me about the play he was writing.
“It’s a historical play,” he said. “It takes place in 1855, in Russia, during the Siege of Sevastopol.” I pretended to know what he was talking about. “It’s about the life of a painter, Bogdan Trunov, a man who reached his heyday during the war years and then died young. He left behind many paintings, which have only fairly recently been discovered. What’s most fascinating,” Klaus said, “is the way Trunov was always breathing the leaden air of war—he was up to his neck in it—but war, the war itself, never appeared in his paintings.”
I quit my job at the museum and went to work for Klaus. He didn’t take it very well when he found out I’d quit. I told him that I would have done it anyway, that it wasn’t because of him. I just didn’t want to be stuck in that place anymore. “I’m not paying you a penny more,” he said. Klaus paid me peanuts, no question, but I had some savings and I could get by. Anyway, it really wasn’t because of him or our play that I’d quit my job, I repeated. That was how I put it:our play. And Klaus laughed.
He could laugh, I have to say that. It was something I noticed right away. He laughed with his whole face, and with his shoulders and his arms. I was thinking later about the complex motions involved in laughter. It’s all so weird. Opening your mouth, showing your teeth, producing sounds, rocking your body. No matter how fucked up humans may be, they still want to laugh. You can’t show sadness by simply presenting a man who’s been trampled on and screwed over. Deep inside the eyes of a sad character—someone who’s really been tested by life—we must also see hope. Klaus said things like this, and I wrote it all down, absolutely all of it, in my notebook.
At night, Klaus would take me to the bars on Vieira de Carvalho. Drunk, we’d roam the streets of República, along Avenida São Luís, past the gray boulevards, the tangled nests of wires on telephone poles, the guys giving blow jobs in dark alleys, the statue of an Indian whose shadow bore down on the transvestites who gathered at Largo do Arouche to smoke joints. Sometimes we stopped and smoked with them.
Then we’d head to Nove de Julho, where Klaus’s apartment was, on the fourth floor of a building with dark hallways and a doorman who resembled a zombie, sitting behind a little wooden desk on the ground floor. The apartment was stuffy and looked like a roomin Count Dracula’s castle. A green light blinked in the street below the only window. There was a steady, electric hum that made the couch, the stained carpet, the smell of cigarettes and of old food in the fridge seem all the more gloomy.
I think it was because I’d just been dumped by my boyfriend and I didn’t have anywhere else to go that I spent so much time with Klaus. My dad said I needed to get a real job, but that’s what parents always say. Some nights I slept at Klaus’s place, on a foam mattress in the living room. Before I fell asleep, he’d tell me about the guys he’d seen while cruising the streets, or at bars. When he liked a guy, he would remap his routes, hang out at the places where the guy liked to hang out, often sending himself on a kind of wild-goose chase, which he would recount to me in detail.
He described the clothes these men wore, their hands (Klaus liked hands), their gestures, the bulge of their dicks in their pants, told me if they were tall or had a beard. The flavor of the month was a little blond actor, who, he said, was just what we’d imagined for the hero of our play. A gorgeous queen. He said that he wanted to introduce me. To see what I thought of him, because we had similar tastes, he said. He could not have been more mistaken.
In the morning, Klaus and I would wake up and have breakfast together at a little dive on Martins Fontes. I’d order orange juice and buttered toast. Klaus would have a glass of cold milk. Then I’d spend the rest of the day organizing research files and reading about nineteenth-century Russia. When the clock struck five, I’d start writing my own stories and draft scenes for the play, and every once in a while I’d jot down what I remembered from my dreams the night before. When night rolled around again, we’d go out for a drink or take a hit of the acid that Klaus kept in a plastic sleeve with his driver’s license, and then we’d sit, paralyzed, on the couch in front of the window, looking out at the city. Once the acid eased off a little, Klaus would rave wildly for hours. He’d rant about the play and everything he imagined for it, and brainstorm solutions to production problems, motivations for the characters.
Whenever he talked about the blond guy, the one he thought would be perfect for the role of Trunov, he said that he was sure I’d like him. “I saw him in a play a while back,” he said. “He’s got talent, not just a pretty face, no—he’s really good, believe me. Yesterday,” he went on, “I took the bus with him. I rode all the way to the last stop, in Santana, can you believe it? I had no reason to go all that way, of course, but I pretended I was going to visit an aunt and sat down next to him and we got to talking. I couldn’t stop looking at his hands—they were firm but soft, with pink, rounded nails. I looked at the hair on his arms. We didn’t talk about sex, of course, but I can tell he loves it. I can pick up on that sort of thing. Now, whether he’s a good lay or not, I wouldn’t know. The problem sometimes is that even people who love sex are scared to death of sexual fantasy. A lot of folks, if they could, would put an end to sexual fantasy, because that’s what carries us through life.” Then Klaus repeated for the thousandth time that the guy was perfect for the role, that he’d give Trunov that strange and distant quality we’d imagined—of being and not being at the same time.
An eccentric quality, for sure. Unlike his fellow wartime painters, Trunov had no interest in the battlefield. Or, rather, he had an interest—those were the times he lived in, after all, and it would have been impossible not to express that in some way—but it wasn’t the kind of thing he wanted in his paintings. The ranks of soldiers in the field, the cavalry with flags raised. He didn’t capture the upheaval, the triumphant generals, the human suffering. Instead, he focussed on the soldiers’ everyday lives, when they weren’t at the front: the little breaks, the downtime when nothing was happening, soldiers with grubby faces waiting to hear the whereabouts of their artillery batteries or playing cards at a staging post.
Something else I learned was that Trunov—born in 1818 in the city of Odessa, died in 1860, at the age of forty-two, a man Klaus described as full of energy and self-respect—had very particular methods when it came time to paint. He didn’t do full-scale studies for his paintings, for example. He did almost no studies. He had the habit of starting his sketches with no plan in mind. He used to paint figures and set them aside, then arrange them against backgrounds he’d prepared separately. So, even when the figures interacted with one another, the connection between them seemed unnatural. Their eyes, Klaus told me, almost never seemed to meet, which gave the paintings an unusual psychological dimension and adreamlike ambiguity. In one of Trunov’s most famous paintings, some soldiers play chess with pieces made from scraps of bread. In another, a lieutenant dozes atop a white horse, looking like he’s about to fall off. In another, soldiers talk, or seem to be talking, while a plump woman holds a colorful feather duster.
From 1854 to 1855, when Sevastopol fell, Trunov lived in neighboring Simferopol. In 1855, while the Russians were losing up to three thousand men a day, Trunov spent about four months shadowing a regiment. He nearly died more than once. He did this on his own, spending his inheritance, because joining the war voluntarily cost money. It was a very prolific period for him. One of his first paintings from that time shows two soldiers, surrounded by smoke, sitting on the stones of a collapsed wall, eating watermelon. One of them is slicing the whitish melon with a pocketknife. They appear to be talking, but most likely, Klaus says, they were painted separately and then mounted against the background of the canvas.
One morning, while we were eating breakfast, I told Klaus that I didn’t quite understand why he was writing a play about Trunov. “You like the guy’s paintings,” I said. “There’s something about them that moves you, fine, but it’s just a weird story where nothing happens.”
Cars streamed past in the street outside. Klaus wiped milk from his mustache with a napkin and said that all stories, at heart, were weird stories where nothing happened. “We are the past,” he said. I said, “No, we’re the future.” He laughed at that. I asked him to explain what was funny. He said no, he wasn’t going to explain anything to me. And, besides, it wasn’t true that nothing happened in the story. He was just now working on a very rousing scene.
“A very rousing scene,” I repeated.
“Yes,” he said, “a very rousing scene. A very rousing scene in the life of Bogdan Trunov.”
Klaus and I had got drunk the night before and were trying not to die. My head was about to explode. It was a cold, sleepy morning. We were sitting in a sheltered part of the café, away from the draft. He wore a scarf with a brown moose on it that matched the color of his mustache. I ate my toast, looked at Klaus, and thought that, if anything was weird, it was my life.
My parents lived in the countryside, and whenever they called I’d say that things were going well—my job, school. I’d tell them about mundane stuff, like when the microwave broke and I had to get it fixed. I made up a story about meeting a new guy, who was very smart and had a job. To be honest, I wanted to be able to tell my parents that I’d gone through a terrible breakup, that I’d dropped everything and was working with a famous director on a play—I mean, they wouldn’t have had a clue who he was, of course, but I’d explain that Klaus was a famous director, a visionary genius. I was just waiting for the right moment to say it. I came close several times. But the months passed and I said nothing. When it was all over, when the play débuted, I’d have my revenge, I thought. They’d tell me that I was right and forgive me for everything. I ordered a mint tea. My head felt detached from my body.
Klaus went on to tell me about this rousing scene, which, of course, was far from rousing, because what Klaus liked was anything but action. He liked what he called “the lingering moments”: the rain, dunking cookies in milk—that mustache dripping with milk was disgusting. And, of course, he liked lunatics and lost people.
One day, Klaus told me how, in horror stories, mysterious characters suddenly appear, wearing clothing from centuries past, as though they’d been asleep for years—or for eternity, which is one and the same—and then suddenly awoke and knocked at the door, hungry for blood.
That was exactly what would happen in our story, according to Klaus. One morning, a man would knock on Trunov’s door. Not at night but around midday—which, ultimately, I thought was a good idea, not at all clichéd, it all happening at the brightest hour of the day.
The man stands waiting in the doorway. He is a soldier. His face is grubby, and he doesn’t look more than thirty. “What’s remarkable about him,” Klaus said, as though he weren’t making the whole thing up then and there, “is his white hair, a contrast with his youthful features, his thin, ruddy face. A handkerchief is tied around his left wrist, and he wears a dark uniform, patched at the knees. His tattered old coat, adorned with an insignia, looks to be the finest garment he owns. He might even be handsome,” he said, “if it weren’t for his over-all look of exhaustion, the crisscrossing expression lines hardening his features.”
“Are you Mr. Trunov, the painter?” he asks.
Standing halfway between the door and the kettle on the fire, Trunov looks at the soldier, who waits behind a curtain of dust, backlit by the pale sunlight. He invites him in. “I have a request,” the soldier says. “I want you to put me in one of your paintings.” Trunovtakes a few steps back toward the fire and stays there for a while, looking at the flames, looking at the man. He warms his hands. He takes a sip of water from a shiny cup. He wipes his mouth on the sleeve of his dark sackcloth coat (this was a detail I’d researched and which Klaus was now using and, you’ve got to admit, it’s what gives the scene its charm). The soldier’s gaze hovers over the silver candlestick on the table, the clock on the wall with the picture of Peter the Great (me, again), and the stack of firewood, before landing once again on Trunov, whose answer takes a little too long to come. (We’d have to fix that later.)
Trunov thanks the man for his visit and his interest. He says that he can certainly paint him, but this is something new, it’s unusual for his subjects to come to him. He usually goes out in search of people willing to pose.
After a brief silence, and realizing that the soldier isn’t going to say anything more, Trunov asks him how he would like to be depicted.
Here Klaus said he’d imagined an elaborate and perfectly steady play of light. He wanted the moment of hesitation between Trunov’s question and the soldier’s reply to stand out, as if it were something solid and heavy, something we could feel. The soldier would stand there in silence, stare at Trunov, then say, “In the midst of battle. Among my fellow-officers. I’d like to be in a trench or on horseback carrying a flag. With the enemy fleet in the distance, the white batteries on the shore, the aqueducts, clouds of smoke, the wind in our faces. On the horizon, enemy fire.”
“This consciousness of solitude in danger,” Klaus said. “That’s the feeling we’ve got to strive for. Are you writing this down?”
He stuck a piece of bread in his mouth and took a sip of milk.
I asked whether Trunov would agree to do the painting in the end.
“Yes, of course,” Klaus answered. “That’s the event that will propel our story forward.” He lowered his head with a sad look on his face. “But Trunov will not accompany the soldier to the battlefield. He will do it differently. He’ll set the scene in the courtyard of a workshop. Civilians and soldiers will be summoned, with guns, in their best clothes. They’ll line up horses. At that moment, onstage, let’s have the soldier in a different kind of light. Soft and clean. This is important, Nadia, let’s do it like that, just like that.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall, and it was past 11a.m.The sidewalk at that hour was teeming with old folks. I had no idea where all those people came from. They arrived gradually, bundled up in thick coats, and soon there was a whole crowd. They were milling around, drinking coffee, wandering up and down the street. They seemed to have nowhere to go, so they stayed right there, like cats in the winter sun. I told Klaus that I had to go home. I hadn’t been to my apartment for three days, and I needed to get some rest.
The bus came quickly. On the way home, I thought about the motivations of the Russian soldier who wanted to be depicted in a war scene. Maybe he’d lost everything. Maybe he wanted to tell the story his way. I thought about how, in the end, Trunov, since he’d decided on that idiotic staging, still wouldn’t paint the war itself.
I didn’t see Klaus for more than a week. During that time, I thought about my ex-boyfriend and got depressed. Deep down, I didn’t really like him. I kept trying to figure out if I really liked anyone. I liked Klaus, but that was different. I thought about the big picture, about my generation, crushed by another ten, fifteen years of paralysis. I thought about how I should have studied economics or, I don’t know, software development, artificial intelligence. At my age, I should have been inventing a new technological paradigm, building robots, making money. But no. I went back to the story I’d been writing. About the mysterious connection between a man and a woman.
Now the story took place not in Russia but in a dreary town on the southern coast of Brazil, a town with gusty mornings and white skies, with shops selling beachwear, floaties, Styrofoam boogie boards. Nadia, from the single lighted window, waves at Sasha. She’s in one of those squat, low-rise buildings slowly eroded by the salt air. Sasha, who is waiting in the courtyard, sees the apartment light go out. Then a door slams, and he hears footsteps on the stairs, at first distant, formless, with lulls between floors. The clatter of keys, the gate, and then Nadia approaching. She has a letter. She gives Sasha instructions. Propped against the little gate, he looks at Nadia. It is always possible to go crazy when you’re alone at night. In the courtyard, Nadia feels like she’s being watched, and she could swear there’s a device in her chest, some sort of mechanism, going tick-tick-tick. She points to her chest. You know the story of the crocodile that swallowed the alarm clock? A leaden air descends on them—silence. Nadia glares at Sasha.He bows his head. She hands him the letter and turns around. Sasha hears the gate slam. He stands there for a moment, thinking about the debt, because Nadia, what little she said, insisted on this—a debt that Sasha will have to pay back sooner or later.
Nadia’s orders were for him to make his way to the pier in front of the Italian Club, drop the letter on the curb, and leave. And never look back. Like in a detective movie. The sea is smooth and glassy like a dish of milk, and at that hour no one else is by the water. Hulls bob up and down in the dark. The club’s neon sign blinks on and off, on, off. Sasha wipes the sweat from his brow and sits on the curb. He fixes his gaze on the water. The next day he will have to obey Nadia again. And again, and again. Because he’s settling his debt, which he can’t understand. “One day you’ll remember, yes”: when Nadia said that, her lip trembled.
I think deep down I wanted to believe that Sasha and Nadia could be friends, could stroll through a strange city together. But I couldn’t write it that way. This filled me with irreparable sadness. I glanced at the pathetic bookshelf in my living room, at the wooden bowl filled with pencils, paper clips, Post-its, a sushi-shaped eraser, a little plush monkey that had been a gift from my mom. I looked at the only picture hanging in my apartment, a tiny student apartment. It was a pitiful little landscape, with a big white mountain.
The next week, I went back to my meetings with Klaus. When I got to his apartment, the door was ajar. A song wafted from inside, some tune from the seventies that I couldn’t identify. Klaus was waiting for me, smoking, a map open on the kitchen table. He looked even thinner than usual and as if he hadn’t slept in days. He showed me on the map where Sevastopol was. I told him that I knew where Sevastopol was. He ignored me and kept pointing at the map. “Sevastopol is a port,” he said. “It’s a funny name. This is the Black Sea. Minerals make the water dark. It’s what they call an inland sea, because it’s surrounded by the mainland. It’s connected to the Atlantic by various stretches of water, but, if you look at the map this way, the sea looks like a big hole. Or, rather, a drain, in the middle of the map, where the whole world will get flushed away.”
Klaus ran his hands over the map, unrolling it across the table. “And this is the world,” he said, and laughed.
I heard the click of the turntable in the living room; the record had ended. Klaus sat down. He said he had something to tell me. I expected the worst. He was silent. Then, as if he’d suddenly swerved around a bump in the road, he started talking about the blond guy. He said he’d run into him a few days ago, at a friend’s birthday party, in a night club downtown. When the booze had all been drunk, the party had migrated to a bar. Then another. Klaus had followed him all night. When he got the chance, he talked about the play. “We were very drunk. I ruined everything,” he said, laughing in a way I’ll never forget. “He’s no longer on the project. We’ll have to find another actor.” Klaus laughed again. He laughed and seemed to be crying, too.
Suddenly I realized that Klaus had aged since we first began meeting. The wrinkles, the white roots in his thinning hair. He looked fragile, weak, his eyes hazy, coated in a gooey yellow film. He’d been drinking too much. He always drank. But it had got worse. There was something inscrutable about him, that was my feeling—a tumultuous heart, in which nothing was clear-cut.
To break the silence, I asked about Trunov, whether Klaus had worked on the play in the past few days. “Barely,” he replied. “To tell you the truth, Trunov has taken a lot out of me.” He shook his head as he said this, and winked at me, a sad, almost involuntary wink, as though he were seeking some kind of accomplice in his sadness.
To try to cheer him up, I told him that I’d managed to get someone to look into the theatre’s wiring. “He’ll take care of everything. He’ll paint the stage, too. The lighting will be perfect. It’s gonna work out. I don’t think the stage is small. It’s the ideal size.”
I opened my backpack and pulled out a stack of printed paper held together by a rubber band, with notes in the margins. “These are suggestions,” I said. “I’d like you to read it. I thought a lot about Trunov, our story. It’s going to be a great play.” I pushed the pages toward Klaus. He held them limply, then set them down on top of the map, just above that city with the funny name.
What I had in mind was that Trunov wouldn’t be able to paint the picture.
He’d assemble the fake battle scene. But he wouldn’t be able to do it. He’d throw out several attempts. And, instead ofthe battle scene, he’d paint another scene, something quiet, a simple portrait of the soldier in his tattered uniform, the one he wore the day he appeared on Trunov’s doorstep asking to be painted. The soldier would be standing in front of a staging post, his face unexpectedly lit up by a crooked smile.
Trunov takes his time with this painting. He wants everything to be perfect. The days go by. But, before he can finish the painting, he is surprised by news of the soldier’s death. A bomb in the trenches. It happened quickly, the way death often does.
Trunov mourns the young man’s death and sets the painting aside, unfinished. The frosts come and time passes and everything ends and begins again. Summer arrives and, with it, the end of the war. The soldier’s portrait will be lost for decades, until the mid-nineteen-sixties, when it’s discovered accidentally by a collector, in an antique shop in Siracusa, Italy. A series of investigations confirm that it is indeed a work by the Russian painter Bogdan Trunov. And only at the end of our play do we find out that this collector, a lonely man with gray eyes, is the narrator.
We débuted two months later. The play was a flop. Everything sounded fake. The script didn’t work. Nothing worked.
The actor Klaus picked, another strapping, angel-faced young man fresh out of some crummy drama school, was dumb as a post. He couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The actor who played the soldier was a little better, but he wasn’t convincing, either. The lighting was great until halfway through the show, when everything went haywire. My parents made the trip into the city, and at the end of the performance I think they just felt sorry for me, because my dad took out his wallet and handed me two hundred reals. “Don’t forget to eat right, dear.”
During the month the play ran, the audiences who used to come to the squat to see gigs and poetry slams—poems with positive messages that spoke of love and trauma, loss and abuse, strength and overcoming—simply evaporated. We weren’t able to renew the contract with the folks who ran the cultural program there, and we buried the story of our play.
On the last night, after the performance, I went with Klaus to a trattoria in Bixiga. I was devastated. He was tired but seemed happy. He ordered a glass of wine and a milanesa. I ordered the gnocchi. We barely said a word about the play. Klaus got drunk fast and started talking as if he’d never stop. At one point, he began to tell a story about Giacometti, the sculptor, a story I found eerie and sad. “In 1914,” he said, “when Giacometti was just thirteen, he sculpted a head, the first head he ever did from observation. His brother was the model. It all turned out fine. But, fifty years later, he spent nearly a month in his studio trying to re-create the head from back then, same head, same size. But he couldn’t do it. It never came out the way it had the first time. Suddenly, everything was a mess. If he looked at the head from far away, he saw a sphere. If he looked at it up close, it was something much more complex. If he looked straight on, he forgot the profile. If he looked at the profile, he forgot the face. Too many levels. What I think is that, besides the lighting and the research, nothing’s more important than time. Nothing.”
As Klaus spoke, I listened to a man who was singing and playing a Casio keyboard. One of the songs was about anemergenza d’amore. “And I will carry you / In my pockets wherever I go / Like a coin, an amulet / That I will cradle in my hands.” I sat there listening, my eyes red from the wine. The room seemed to ripple, with its twinkly lights and photos of actors and actresses (Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren) and colorful ribbons dangling from the ceiling. When the song ended and lifeless applause sprang sporadically from around the room, Klaus said that he was leaving. That was how he said it: “I’m leaving.” I didn’t understand what he meant. Leaving to go where? He was drunk. He apologized to me. He tried to look me in the eye. “Will you forgive me, Nadia? I can’t stay. I hope you understand. I can’t stay any longer.”
Even today I can’t explain it. Goodbyes are like that, quick, and we never know when they’ll actually happen.
That night I left the restaurant and walked to the Brigadeiro metro stop. It was cold, and the city looked like a giant space station, a forgotten corner in the vastness of the heavens.
I remember, when I got to the station, taking a while to find my metro card in my bag. Then I put my headphones on. I went down the escalator. It was late; there was hardly anybody on the platform. Sitting on a bench was a dirty homeless man. He moaned; the corners of his mouth stretched to show his teeth. The man was hunched over, trying to keep himself warm. He looked at the ground and rocked gently back and forth. I opened my backpack and pulled out anold sweatshirt. I placed it on his lap, feeling a little ridiculous.
Soon my train arrived. That night, I stayed up writing almost until morning. Once again, the story began with Nadia waving from the single lighted window, at the top of a low-rise building. But I changed just about everything else. Instead of Moscow or a seaside town, the story was now set in the city of São Paulo, in a sufficiently distant future. There were no more secret letters. Nadia and Sasha were older, too.
Sasha stood waiting in the building’s courtyard. He was just dropping by to visit Nadia. They were friends who hadn’t seen each other for a long time, or maybe they had once been a couple. She said that she liked living on the top floor, in the highest apartment. The building used to be taller, she said. Many years ago, during the siege, a bomb took off the top. A Chinese tailor lived on the ground floor and took refuge there—he couldn’t leave. Today, the tailor’s family owned the building and rented out the apartments; the price was low and the street secluded.
Sasha and Nadia walked down the block to a sort of bar with a big window, on the top floor of another building. At first it appeared to be a residential building; there was no sign, and no noise could be heard from the street. In the dark, they climbed the stairs, turned in to a corridor. A door opened. They entered a smoky room with a bar and people drinking and talking so quietly that you couldn’t tell whether they were real people or just projected images. The window looked out on an overpass and a compact cluster of buildings and lights. There was a red ball in the sky. Nadia told Sasha about a trip she’d taken many years ago, when she was still a child, to the house of some friends of her parents. It was the first time she’d ever left the walled side of the city. Everything was new. When she arrived, she was given gifts: a doll, a seashell, a music box. She’d never seen anything like it.
Later, she would tell Sasha the same story again. I don’t think she realized that she was telling the same story. People always tell the same stories, even when they try to tell new stories. Stories are laid out in front of us, like objects, and over time we realize that they’re all made of the same material, a solid mass of stone and metal.
Nadia told the same story at dawn, as she and Sasha tried to cross a wide avenue. For a moment, she seemed to catch a glimpse of herself from the outside, like an image beside Sasha. They continued down the avenue, which grew wider and wider and impossible to cross. ♦
(Translated, from the Portuguese, by Zoë Perry.)