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The Hunchback and Botticelli’s Venus

Fluttering locks of reddish hair whipped by the wind and rain, smooth and radiant skin, she is Botticelli’s Venus walking down the street. (The one in the Uffizi, born from a seashell, not the one in the Staatliche Museen, with a black background, which is similar but has dry hair arranged around the head, descending evenly down the body.)

Don’t think that I boast any extraordinary perspicacity, but the fact is that even if the woman I observe is as motionless as a statue, I can still tell the rhythm of her steps when she moves. I understand not only muscles, but also skeletons and, given the symmetry of the bone structure, can predict the articulation of the ankles, knees, and ilium, which determine the rhythm of the body’s movement.

Venus walks unbothered by the rain, sometimes turning her head toward the sky to wet her face even more, and, I can say without the slightest poetic stuffiness, that it’s the walk of a goddess.

I have to create an elaborate strategy to get close to her and achieve what I need, a difficult task, as women, at first contact, feel repulsion toward me.

I follow her to where she lives. I watch the building for several days. Venus likes to walk in the streets and to sit in the square near her home, reading. But she stops all the time, looks at people, especially children, or else feeds the pigeons, which in a way disappoints me; pigeons, like rats, roaches, ants and termites, don’t need any help. They’ll be around after bacteria finally put an end to us.

Looking at her from a distance, I am more and more impressed by the harmony of her body, the perfect balance among the parts that make up her wholeness—the extension of the members in relation to the vertical dimension of the thorax; the length of the neck in relation to the face and head; the narrowness of the waist in combination with the firmness of the buttocks and chest. I need to approach this woman as soon as possible. I’m racing against time.

On a day of heavy rain, I sit beside her under the downpour, on a bench in the square. I have to find out right away if she likes to talk.

“Too bad the rain doesn’t allow reading today,” I say.

She doesn’t answer.

“That’s why you didn’t bring a book.”

She pretends not to hear.

I insist: “He makes the sun shine on the good and the bad, and sends the rain on the just and the unjust.”

The woman then stares at me quickly, but I keep my gaze on her forehead.

“Are you talking to me?”

“God makes it rain on the just and the—” (My eyes on her forehead.)

“Ah, you were speaking of God.”

She gets up. Standing, she knows she’s in a favorable position to thwart the advances of an intruder.

“Don’t take it wrong. I saw that you must be one of those evangelicals looking to save souls for Jesus, but don’t waste your time, I’m a lost cause.”

I follow her as she walks slowly away.

“I’m not a Protestant pastor. In fact, I doubt you can guess what I do.”

“I’m very good at that. But I don’t have time today, I have to get to an art exhibit.”

Her voice displays less displeasure. She possesses the virtue of curiosity, which is very good for me. And another essential quality as well: she likes to talk. That’s even better.

I offer to accompany her and, after a slight hesitation, she agrees. We walk, with her a short distance away from me as if we weren’t together. I try to be as inconspicuous as possible.

At the exhibit there is a single attendant, sitting at a table, filing her nails. Negrinha, my current lover, says that women who file their nails in public have trouble thinking, and filing their nails helps them reflect better, like those women who reason more clearly while removing blackheads from their nose in front of the mirror.

While I look at the paintings with studied indifference, I say to her, “Avant-garde from the last century, spontaneous abstract vestiges, subconscious, sub-Kandinsky I prefer a Shakespearean sonnet.”

She doesn’t reply.

“I’m trying to impress you.”

“It wasn’t enough, but mentioning poetry helped a little. I’d like to understand poetry.”

Poetry isn’t to be understood; poetry is no pharmaceutical instruction sheet. I’m not going to tell her that, not for the time being.

“How about getting an espresso?” she asks.

I look for a place where we can sit. Being taller than I, Venus makes my hump look larger when we’re standing side by side.

“Now I’m going to find out what you do,” she says, appearing to be amused by the situation. “You do something, don’t you? Don’t tell me, let me guess. Well, we already know you’re not a Protestant pastor, and you’re not a teacher; teachers have dirty fingernails. Lawyers wear ties. Not a stockbroker, obviously not. Maybe a systems analyst, that hunched-over position in front of the computer… Uh… Sorry.”

If I had looked in her eyes, what would I have seen when she referred to the spinal column of a guy bent over in front of the computer? Horror, pity, scorn? Now do you understand why I avoid, in the initial contacts, reading their eyes? True, I might have seen only curiosity, but I prefer not to risk glimpsing something that could undermine my audacity.

“And you, do you know what I do?”

“Clean nails without polish. You like to read on a park bench. You like getting wet in the rain. You have one foot larger than the other. You want to understand about poetry. You’re lazy. Disturbing signs.”

“Does it show?”

“You could be a photographer’s model.”

“Does it show?”

“Or an idle, frustrated housewife who goes to a fitness center where she does dance, stretching, bodybuilding, specific exercises to strengthen the gluteus. The, the—”

“The ass. Is that the word you’re looking for? What about the ass?”

“After the breasts, it’s the part of the body most exposed to danger,” I add.

I’m a bit surprised at her naturalness in using that vulgar word in a conversation with someone she doesn’t know, despite the fact that I know from long experience that no one employs euphemisms with hunchbacks. Or other niceties: it’s common for people to belch and fart absentmindedly in my presence.

“Does it show?” she repeats.

“Or else it’s none of that, and you have a bookbinding workshop in your house.”

“You didn’t answer. Does it show?”

“What?”

“That I have one foot larger than the other?”

“Show me the palm of your hand. I see you’re planning a trip. There’s a person that has you concerned.”

“Right again. What’s the trick?”

“Everyone has one foot larger than the other, is planning a trip, has somebody who makes life difficult for them.”

“It’s my right foot.”

She extends her leg, shows her foot. She’s wearing a flat leather shoe styled like a sneaker.

“But, anyway, what’s my profession?”

“Bookbinding. A woman who works with books has special charm.”

“There you’re wrong. I don’t do anything. But you got one part right. I’m lazy. Is that one of my disturbing signs?”

“It’s the main one,” I reply. “A famous poet felt laziness to be a delicious state, a sensation that relegated poetry, ambition, and love to a secondary plane. The other unique sign is enjoying reading on a park bench. And finally, liking to get wet in the rain.”

I don’t tell her that lazy people suffer from the instinctive impulse to achieve something but don’t know what. The fact of Venus being lazy was, to me, great luck. All the women I’ve seduced were lazy, dreaming of doing or learning something. But, especially, they enjoyed talking—speaking and listening—which in reality was what was most important. I’ll get back to that.

“You’re a professor of some kind; your clean fingernails threw me off.”

“You can call me professor.”

“All right, Professor. And what about you? What’re you going to call me? Lazy girl?”

“I already have a name for you. Venus.”

“Venus? Horrible.”

“Your Venus is the one by Botticelli.”

“The painting? I can’t remember what it’s like anymore.”

“Just take a look in the mirror.”

“Silly flattery. Why is liking to get wet in the rain a disturbing sign?”

“That’s something I’m not going to tell you today.”

“Here’s the book. I couldn’t read it in the rain,” she says, taking a book from the pocket of her raincoat. “Ciao.”

It was only then that I saw her blue eyes: neutral. She had already become accustomed to my appearance and, perhaps, managed to see that my face wasn’t as ugly as my body.

That was our first meeting. Venus’s liking poetry was going to help me, but if she appreciated music, or theater, or cinema, or the plastic arts it wouldn’t change my strategy at all. Negrinha only liked music and wasn’t a lot of trouble, as she liked to talk, especially to complain about the man who lived with her before me, who only spoke of practical things, short-, medium- and long-term plans, schedules, notes in appointment books, errands, cost-benefit analysis of expenses, whether for a trip or buying a garlic press, and when she wanted to talk about some other topic he simply didn’t listen.

Besides being a good listener, I can say interesting things, trivia from almanacs as well as more profound things that I’ve learned from books. I’ve spent my life reading and becoming informed. While others were kicking balls around, dancing, dating, strolling, driving cars or motorcycles, I was at home convalescing from failed operations and reading. I’ve learned a lot; I’ve deduced, thought, verified, discovered. I’ve become a bit prolix, it’s true. But I grew, during my martyrdom of shadows, by studying and planning how to reach my objectives.

A guy who’s had twenty operations on his spine, one failure after the other, has to have, among his major virtues, that of persistence. I discover, through the doorman of the building where she lives, that Agnes is the name by which Venus is known in the world of mortals. I leave an envelope with a note for her at the reception desk in her building.

The note: I suspect that you’ve read little poetry. You read the books in the park and skip pages. They must be short stories; no one reads poems that way. Lazy people like to read short stories; they finish one story on page twenty then skip to the one on page forty, and in the end they read only part of the book. You need to read the poets, even if it’s only in the manner of that crazy writer for whom books of poetry deserve to be read only a single time and then destroyed so that dead poets can yield way to the living ones and not leave them petrified. I can make you understand poetry, but you’ll have to read the books I indicate. You need me, more than you need your mother or your Pomeranian. Here’s my telephone number. P.S.: You’re right, it’s better to be named Agnes than Venus. Signed: The Professor.

To make the simpleton understand poetry! But she liked that literary genre, so therefore the topic of our conversations would be poetry. The things a hunchback is capable of doing to make a woman fall in love with him.

When I’m looking for a new girlfriend, the old one is discarded; I need to concentrate on the main objective. It was time to say good-bye to Negrinha.

Astutely, I write some obvious love poems to Agnes and leave them, on purpose, in the printer tray on the computer table, a place that Negrinha always pries into. She’s all the time going through my things; she’s very jealous.

Negrinha becomes furious when she discovers the poems. She curses me, utters hard words, which I answer gently. She beats against my chest and my hump, says that she loves me, that she hates me, while I respond with soft words. I read somewhere or other that in a separation it’s the one who doesn’t love that says affectionate things.

Truthfully, I was very interested in Negrinha until she fell in love with me. But I am not and never was in love with her, or with any other woman I’ve been involved with. I’m a hunchback and I don’t need to fall in love with a woman, I need for some woman to fall in love with me—and another, then another. I remember the pleasant moments I spent with Negrinha, in bed, talking, listening to music, and mixing our saliva. They say that this transparent liquid secreted by the salivary glands is tasteless and serves merely to fluidify food and facilitate ingestion and digestion, which only proves that people lack the sensitivity to perceive the taste of even their own saliva, and, worse yet, the necessary gustative subtlety to take delight in the taste of another person’s saliva. When they mix, the two salivas acquire an ineffable flavor, comparable only to the nectar of mythology. An enzymatic mystery, like others in our body.

I’m sad at having made Negrinha suffer. But I’m a hunchback. Good-bye, Negrinha, your saliva was delectable and your green eyes possessed a luminous beauty.

It takes Agnes a week to reply to my letter.

Her note: I do need my Pomeranian, but I don’t need my mother, maybe her checkbook. I’m going to stop by there.

When Agnes arrives, I’m already prepared to receive her. How does a hunchback prepare to receive a beautiful woman who must be arduously induced to give herself to him? By making plans beforehand, all the contingencies, as is the essence of planning; remaining calm, as we must when we receive the surgeon or the plumber come to fix the toilet in the bathroom; wearing loose clothing and sticking out the chest; remaining alert so that our face always appears benign and our gaze permanently gentle. A distracted hunchback, even if not Quasimodesque and having a good-looking face, as in my case, always exhibits a sinister mien.

Agnes comes in and observes the living room with a keen feminine eye. I’ve been living here for only a year; I move constantly, and my living room, despite being elegantly furnished, has something vaguely incomplete about it, as if it lacked light fixtures, furniture with no function, and other useless ornaments that result from the prolonged occupation of domestic spaces. The fine wooden bookcases, which hold my books, CDs and DVDs of film, music, opera, and the plastic arts, and which always go with me when I change residences, are modular and easily disassembled.

Agnes stops in front of the bookcases that cover the walls of the living room and asks, without turning toward me, “Do you own this apartment?”

“It’s rented.”

“What are the books mentioned in your note?”

“You’ll find out in due time. It’s a schedule without preset period of duration. You’ll read a poem daily. The poets will never be repeated. You’ll have the entire day to read the poem. At night you’ll come here, we’ll have dinner, and you’ll talk to me about the chosen poem. Or about anything you wish, if you don’t feel like talking about the poem. I have the best cook in the city. Would you like something to drink?”

Agnes, who had kept her back to me till then, suddenly turned, exclaiming, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. I must be mad. Am I going to become a student? Is that it?”

“You’re a pretty woman, but you feel an emptiness inside, don’t you?”

“Ciao.”

Over twenty operations to correct a hump that never went away. Constant awareness of furtive expressions of contempt, blatant mockery—Hey, little man, can I rub my hand on your hump for luck?—daily and immutable reflections of repugnant nakedness in the mirror in which I contemplate myself, not to mention what I used to read in the gaze of women, before I learned to wait for the right moment to read women’s gazes—if all of that didn’t break me, what effect can an oblique ciao followed by a disdainful withdrawal have? None.

To select what Agnes should read, I decide, for the sake of convenience, to use the works I have in my bookcase. I think about beginning with a classical licentious poet, but it’s too early to introduce poems that say questo è pure un bel cazzo lungo e grosso or fottimi e fà de me ciò che tu vuoi, o in potta o in cul, chio me ne curo poco; she might get scared. This obscene poet is to be used in the phase when the woman has already been conquered. I forgot to say that I choose poets who are already dead, despite the existence of living poets much better than certain renowned poets who’ve kicked the bucket, but my decision is dictated by convenience; the best of the dead had the opportunity to find their way to my shelves, and I can’t say the same about the living ones.

I sent Agnes a poem that says that the art of losing is not hard to learn. I know it will provoke a reaction. Lazy people are constantly losing things, not to mention missing flights.

It’s raining on the first day of the program. As soon as she enters, Agnes asks, “How did you know that for me losing things is always a disaster, despite all the rationalizations I make?”

“The same way I knew that you have one foot larger than the other. Shall we talk more about the poem? We can have dinner afterward.”

“Tomorrow. Another thing, the foot of Botticelli’s Venus is very ugly. Mine’s prettier. Ciao.”

A hunchback knows how he sleeps. We go to sleep on our side, but we wake up in the middle of the night lying face up, with pains in the back. Sleeping face down demands that one leg be bent and the opposite arm stuck under the pillow. We hunchbacks wake up several times during the night, looking for a comfortable position, or at least a less uncomfortable one, tormented by nocturnal thoughts that haunt our sleep. A hunchback never forgets, he is always thinking about his misfortune. People are what they are because they once made a choice; if they had chosen otherwise their fate would be different, but a born hunchback makes no choice, he didn’t intervene in his lot, didn’t roll the dice. This intermittent affirmation robs us of sleep, forces us to get out of bed. Besides which, we like being on our feet.

When Agnes arrives the next day, the cook is already preparing dinner. A guy with his vertebrae in place can take the woman he wants to seduce to get a hot dog on the street. I can’t allow myself that luxury.

“The poet—Is it poet or poetess?”

“The dictionary says poetess. But you can call all of them poet, man or woman.”

“The poet says that when talking to the man she loved, she realized that he was hiding a tremor, the tremor of his mortal suffering. I sensed that when I spoke with you.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“Do you find it . . . bothersome to be a hunchback?”

“I’ve gotten used to it. Besides that, I’ve seen without anguish all the movie hunchbacks of Notre Dame, and I’m familiar with all the Richard IIIs—did you know that the real Richard III wasn’t a hunchback, as can be deduced from his armor, which has been preserved to the present day? I also know by heart Dylan Thomas’s poem about a hunchback in the park.”

Agnes imitates me.

“Interesting.”

I ask her to read me the new poem she’s chosen. She leafed through the pages, reading poorly, her face buried in the book. You can’t read decently with your face stuck in the book. And reading a poem is even more difficult; poets themselves don’t know how to do it.

“Talk about the poem.”

“The woman laments the death of the man she loved… Her fate was to celebrate that man, his strength, the brilliance of his imagination, but the woman says she’s lost everything, forgotten everything.”

“Did you feel anything?”

“A certain sadness. The poem bothered me a lot.”

“Talk some more,” I request.

Agnes speaks, I listen; she speaks, I listen. I intervene only to provoke her to speak more. As I know how to listen, it’s very easy. Making them speak and listening to them is my tactic.

“I think that in Russian it must be more tormenting still,” she says.

“That’s the problem of poetic translation,” I reply.

“The reader either knows all the languages in the world,” says Agnes, “or has to get used to it: poems being less sad or less happy or less pretty or less meaningful, or less et cetera when translated. Always less.”

“An American poet said that poetry is what’s lost in translation.”

“Who was it?”

“You’re going to have to discover that. How about our having dinner?”

I’m not going to describe the delicacies of the dinner, the wines of noble provenance that we drank, specifications of the crystal glasses we used, but I can say that the table of the greatest gourmet in the city is no better than my own. My father was skilled in matters of business, and when he died—my mother died first, I think she couldn’t bear my misfortune, her misfortune—he left me in a comfortable situation. I’m not rich, but I can move, when necessary, from one beautiful residence to another even better, and I have a good cook and free time to accomplish my plans.

I call a cab. I accompany her to her home, despite her protests that she could go by herself. I return very tired. 

I get out of bed quite early, in doubt as to the next poet to recommend. Choosing the books makes me feel even more shameless, like one of those know-it-all scholars who make their living by creating canons, or rather, catalogs of important authors. Actually, as I’ve already said, I only want to use the authors I have on my shelves, and even the bookcases of a hunchback don’t necessarily have the best authors.

 I ask Agnes to read the poem in which the author describes allegorically an act of cunnilingus.

“Please read this poem to me.”

She reads. Her French is perfect.

“Talk about the poem.”

“The poet, after saying that his loved one is nude like a Moorish slave, contemplates the thighs, the woman’s hips, her breasts, and her belly, ces grappes de ma vigne, observes enthralled the narrow waist that accentuates the feminine pelvis, but what leaves him in ecstasy and sighing is the haughty red of the woman’s face.”

“Was that what you understood? The poet sees her pelvis and becomes ecstatic over the rouge on her face? Remember, he’s staring at the lower part of the woman’s trunk; the haughty red part that catches his attention can only be the vagina. Except he’s not lecherous enough to dispense with metaphors.”

“It could be. What’s on today’s menu?”

“You’re the one who said she wanted to understand.”

“What’s on today’s menu?”

“Grenouille.”

“Love it.”

Several days have passed since our first encounter. I maintain control; patience is one of the greatest virtues, and that’s true also for those who aren’t hunchbacks. Today, for example, when Agnes, upon sitting down in front of me, shows her knees I feel like kissing them, but I don’t even look at them for long.

Agnes picks up the book.

“This here: ‘the lover becomes transformed into the thing loved, by virtue of so much imagining . . . what more does the body desire to achieve?’ What the devil does the poet mean by that?”

“Agnes, you read the poem unwillingly. It was you who chose this poem. There were other easier ones.” 

“Can we say it’s a solipsistic sonnet?”

“Just for the pleasure of alliteration?”

“That too. Or should we call it an ascetic sonnet? Or a Neo-Platonic sonnet? See, I’m starting to sound like my own professor.”

“Can one have a philosophy without knowing the philosopher who conceived it?” I ask.

Her face remains immobile; she has the habit of being like that, without moving her eyes, much less her lips—those gestures of someone wanting to demonstrate that they’re meditating. It’s as if she had gone deaf. But she quickly resumes speaking, with enthusiasm. And I listen. Knowing how to listen is an art, and enjoying listening is part of it. Anyone who feigns liking to listen is soon unmasked.

I don’t touch her, either that day or in the days that follow.

There are women with dull white skin, others with an almost verdigris whiteness, others faded like plaster or bread-crumb flour, but Agnes’s white skin has a splendid radiance that makes me want to bite it, sink my teeth into her arms, her legs, her face; she has a face meant to be bitten, but I restrain myself. I give her another erotic poem to read. I confess that I’m taking a calculated risk. How will she react when she reads the tongue licks the red petals of the pluriopen rose, the tongue tills a certain hidden bud, and weaves swift variations of subtle rhythms, and licks, languorously, lingeringly, the liquory hirsute grotto? Agnes had changed the subject when I tried to make an erotic exegesis (isn’t that what she wants—to understand?) of the cunnilingus poem, read by her two days earlier. How would she act now, after reading another poem on the same topic and even more daring?

“I thought that poetry didn’t show such things, that fellatio and cunnilingus were only clichés used in films,” Agnes says, after reading the poem. “I don’t know if I liked it. ‘Licks, languorously, lingeringly’ is an amusing alliteration. But ‘liquory hirsute grotto’ is horrible. Is the next one going to be like that?”

I don’t fathom the true implications of what she’s telling me. Displeasure, disappointment? Mere curiosity? An opening? Better not to go into it too deeply.

We have been at the game for several days.

We read a poem about a guy who asks if he dares to eat a peach.

“Eating peaches?”

I play her game: “Let’s say it’s about old age.”

“And old men don’t have the courage to eat peaches?”

“I think it’s because old people wear dentures.”

“I thought that poems always spoke of beautiful or transcendental things.”

“Poetry creates transcendence.”

“I hate it when you show off.”

“I’m not showing off. Prostheses are not merely the thing they represent. But some are more meaningful than others. Penis implants more than false teeth.”

“Mechanical legs more than false fingernails?”

“Pacemakers more than hearing aids.”

“Silicone breasts more than wigs?”

“Right. But always transcending the thing and the subject, something outside it.” 

“Is that implant much used? The one—”

“For the penis? Put yourself in the place of a man who has that implant. See the poetic simplicity of the metaphysical gesture of rebellion against the poison of time, against loneliness, anhedonia, sadness.”

“May I ask an indiscreet question?”

“Go ahead.”

“Do you use, or rather, would you use that prosthesis?”

“I’m a true hunchback. A hunchback doesn’t need it.”

I could have told her that a hunchback from birth, like me, either sublimates his desires forever—in which case, why the implant?—or else, as an adult, like me who until twenty-eight never had a sexual relationship, comes to be dominated by a paroxysmic lubricity that makes his dick get hard at the slightest of stimuli. A hunchback either becomes impotent or burns in a fire of lasciviousness that never cools for a single instant, like the heat of hell. But she’ll find that out for herself in due time.

“There’s no dentures in the poem,” says Agnes, “or any kind of implant.”

“Poets never show everything clearly. But the dentures are there, for one who knows what to look for.”

“Old age is there, and the fear of death.”

“And what is old age in a man?” I ask.

“I agree: it’s false teeth, baldness, the certainty that the sirens no longer sing to him. Yes, and also the fear of acting. ‘Do I dare?’ the poet asks the whole time. He hates the horrendous symptoms of old age, but doesn’t dare commit suicide. ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ means will I have the courage to put an end to this shit that is my life? The peach is a metaphor for death. But I accept that there’s also a denture involved. Am I learning to understand poetry?”

“Yes. The poem can be understood any way you like, which in itself is a step forward, and other people may, or may not, understand it in the same fashion as you. But that’s not important in the least. What matters is that the reader must feel the poem, and what one feels upon reading the poem is exclusive, it’s unlike the feeling of any other reader. What needs to be understood is the short story, the novel, those lesser literary genres, full of obvious symbolism.”

“I think you talk too much,” she says, good-naturedly.

Caveat: if a woman doesn’t have a minimum of humor and intelligence I am not able to fuck her. How could I carry on a conversation with her? That’s awful for a lascivious hunchback who must confront a real uphill battle to seduce women, whose first impression on seeing him could be the same one they’d have upon seeing a basilisk, if that cross-eyed reptile with lethal breath existed. Can you imagine me investing, blind with desire, days and days on a seduction only to discover later, in the middle of the undertaking, that I’m dealing with a dummy who’ll make me go limp at the moment of truth? Once a hunchback goes limp, he’s limp for the rest of his life, as if infected by a polyresistant bacteria. You’ll say that if Agnes were intelligent she’d find me prolix and an exhibitionist. But in actuality I merely provoked her so she would talk. She was impressed with herself, believed she was learning not just to see but to understand that though the person may be nearsighted he can’t keep his eyes closed.

Another thing: just as for the poet writing is choosing—creating options and choosing—I too had to create options and choose.

My member is rigid. The hardness and size of my penis give me confidence, very great courage, greater even than my cerebral astuteness. I feel like placing her hand on my dick, but the moment for that hasn’t arrived yet. The alternative hasn’t been created yet.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned already that the name of my cook is Maria do Céu, or Mary from Heaven. She deserves that name, and tonight she graces us with a magnificent meal.

After dinner we talk until the early hours. Several times I ask, Isn’t it late for you? And she replies that she’s not sleepy and doesn’t feel like going home. We have wine, but I’m careful to avoid getting her drunk. Lucidity, both hers and mine, is essential to my plan.

I tell pointless jokes that make her laugh, precisely because they’re pointless. For the first time she speaks of personal matters, the least complex ones, like her mother’s grouchiness. There are women who even after they’re no longer adolescents continue to feel resentment toward their mother. I listen to everything, attentively. Agnes also speaks of her former boyfriend, who was a good person but didn’t talk to her. On one occasion, they went out for dinner and she decided that she’d keep quiet the entire evening. At the restaurant, her boyfriend consulted the menu, suggested the dishes, placed the order, and, once served, asked Agnes if her dish was tasty. He didn’t say anything else, and didn’t even note the silence. He might have noticed if she had refused to eat, but she was hungry. When they returned home, they went to bed and made love in silence. Then the boyfriend said “Good night, dear,” rolled over, and went to sleep.

I listened to it all, attentively, making neutral but appropriate comments, which she interpreted as obvious interest on my part in what she was saying and feeling.

I choose another English-language poet. I have no predilection for the English language but cultivate English for the same reason that Descartes knew Latin. Agnes arrives with a basket of tangerines.

“You never have tangerines in the house.”

“They’re out of season,” I said.

“But I found some. I chose this poem.”

“Oh?”

“The poet says he knows the night, he has walked and still walks in the rain, beyond the lights of the city, without looking at the people, without the desire to give explanations, imagining the sounds of distant houses; the time that the clock shows is neither wrong nor right. You know I’m enjoying this?”

“Why?”

“I wanted to understand what poets say, and I learned with you that it’s secondary,” says Agnes. “Every literary text is capable of generating different readings, but besides that wealth of meanings, poetry has the advantage of being mysterious even when it says two and two is four.”

“You’re right. And, especially, poetry is never totally consumed. However much you devour a poem, the feeling it evokes is never exhausted.”

“How complex life is,” says Agnes, pretending to sigh.

“You’ll see that’s how it is,” I say, lightly touching her arm. She moves away from the contact unaffectedly, without drama.

“How what is?”

“Life is complex.”

“Is that what poets say?”

“I don’t know. Let’s have dinner.”

Did I blunder by touching her? I think, as we eat the gastronomic delicacies prepared by Maria do Céu.

I’ve been at this undertaking for many days. I sense that Agnes is starting to become more vulnerable. But as the Bible says, for everything there is a season, and it’s not yet time to harvest.

“Is there such a thing as feminine poetry?” Agnes asks. “If someone didn’t know the author’s name, would he discover that this verse—‘the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not in silence, but restraint’—was written by a woman? Is that a masculine or a feminine sentence?”

“It was a woman who wrote it, but it could have been written by a man.”

We’ve finished dinner and are in the middle of our conversation when the doorbell rings. Maria do Céu goes to open the door and returns immediately, with an apologetic expression, followed by Negrinha.

“I didn’t know you had company,” says Negrinha.

“I told her you were with someone,” protests Maria do Céu, who knows that this unexpected appearance by Negrinha can only mean trouble: she witnessed Negrinha hit my hump when I gave her the pink slip.

“I didn’t hear her,” says Negrinha, noticing the book on the table. “Ah, poetry. Am I interrupting chitchat about poetry? This devil is full of tricks.”

Agnes gets up from her chair.

“It’s time for me to go.”

“You haven’t introduced me to your friend,” says Negrinha.

“Some other time,” says Agnes. “Ciao.”

Agnes’s ciao is always a bad sign. I go to the door with her.

“Wait a moment, I’m going to get the book.”

She takes the book and leaves in a rush; I barely have time to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“It’s always the same magic,” says Negrinha sarcastically. “The man who can talk about the beauty of music, painting, poetry. And that fools the idiots, doesn’t it? It worked with me. Music here, poetry there, and when the imbecile opens her eyes you’re already sticking your dick in her.”

“Negrinha, stop it.”

“You’re a prick. That hussy left before I could tell her what a 24-carat son of a bitch you are.”

“Negrinha—”

“I came here because I was feeling sorry for you, thinking you were by yourself, but no, I find another idiot being seduced, the next victim. Does she know that after you screw her you’ll kick her out on her ass?”

“Do you want something to drink? Sit here. Some wine?”

“Water.”

I bring her a glass of water. Negrinha takes a swallow. She’s calmer now.

“I think I’m going to accept that wine.”

I place the glass and the bottle of Bordeaux, the wine she likes, beside her.

“Who is that woman? Is she that Venus, the one you wrote love poems for?”

“I already told you: that Venus was a fictitious figure.”

“You said you were in love with another woman. With that hussy, the classic dumb blonde?”

“She’s a redhead.”

“The same shit.”

Negrinha again emptied and refilled the wine glass.

“And how could you fall in love with another woman when you were screwing me all the time? Why did you leave me? You liked me, you still like me, don’t you?     

She reaches out her hand, but I move away.

“You’re afraid, aren’t you? Just wait till you let me grab your dick.”

She downs another glass of wine, in a single gulp.

“Negrinha, remember Heraclites—”

“Fuck Heraclites. You’ve never read a book on philosophy, you read those For Dummies books.”

“I have to go out, Negrinha.”

“Don’t call me Negrinha. My name is Barbara.”

“I have to go.”

“You’re afraid to go to bed with me.”

“I have an important appointment.”

“Coward.”

I go to my bedroom and start changing clothes, rapidly. Negrinha invades the room. She seems a little drunk. As I quickly dress, she undresses with the same haste. We finish at practically the same time. Negrinha lies down, nude, on the bed, showing me the tip of her moistened tongue.

“I came here to talk with you,” she says.

I run out of the room and descend the stairs. In the street I take the first taxi I see.

Agnes disappears for a couple of days. When we meet again, she seems calm, and different.

“I liked that poem,” Agnes says.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because it’s only three lines.”

“And what does the author say in those three lines?”

“Does it matter?” Agnes asks. “Or is what’s important what I felt?”

“Yes, what you felt.”

“The poet says that she doesn’t like poetry, but when she reads it, with total disdain, she discovers after all in poetry a place for the truth. I understood something, but I think she means something different. I was overcome by a feeling that I can’t explain. That’s how it should be, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Who was that woman who came here? She’s very pretty.”

I kiss Agnes, lightly, on the cheek.

“Do you think I could be your girlfriend?” she asks.

“I think so.”

“You have a handsome face, but you’re a hunchback. How can I be your girlfriend?”

“After a time you won’t even notice this physical characteristic of mine.”

“What will other people say?”

“Others won’t know, or suspect, or imagine. We’ll go live somewhere else. We’ll tell the neighbors we’re brother and sister.”

“And who was that woman? I have to admit that she’s beautiful.”

“Must be some crazy.”

“I’m speaking seriously.”

“She’s a woman who has a thing for me.”

“I’m not lazy.”

I kiss her again, this time on the lips.

“This is very good,” she says.

I take her by the arm and lead her gently to the bedroom. We remove our clothes in silence.

After the surrender, she sighs in exhaustion. Lying beside her, I feel in my mouth the delectable taste of her saliva.

“Promise you’ll always talk to me,” says Agnes, embracing me.

I’m going to live with Agnes in a different house, in a different area.

The deafening street howls around me when a woman dressed completely in black, with long dark hair, passes by, tall and slim, enhancing by her movements her beautiful alabaster legs. (Life imitates poetry.) I follow her to where she lives. I have to create an elaborate strategy to get close to her and achieve what I need, a difficult task, as women, at first contact, feel repulsion toward me.

© Rubem Fonseca. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Clifford Landers. All rights reserved.