Santiago had seen the young man watching from afar for some time. While he related his story, he noticed—out of the corner of his eye—that the kid was trying to get Pérsio’s attention. He moved around nonstop, speaking loudly, but Pérsio was entirely immersed in Santiago’s words, a man-boy listening to a tale of fairies, witches, princes. He had even forgotten the burning tip of the cigarette between his fingers, his mouth ajar, eyes open wide, almost green with the light striking the pale iris directly like it was. Santiago wanted to warn him—wannabe celebrities, he remembered Pérsio’s words from before—but the young man crept up from behind, stealthy, catlike, before laying a hand on Pérsio’s shoulder. Spooked, Pérsio started, burning his fingers.
“Shit,” he snarled, smashing the cigarette butt in the ashtray. He turned toward the grinning young man, an excess of large teeth lined up above a turtleneck, a ’50s quiff with short back and sides, his hands tucked into the pockets of his cargo pants. A huge pendulous keychain jangled as he leaned over.
He greeted Pérsio, “Oi, remember me?”
“Oi.” Pérsio licked his burned fingers, extended his hand. “Of course I remember you. How’s it going? You’re in the cast of Oedipus?”
“Antigone,” the young man corrected him, “The chorus, I’m Carlinhos from the chorus.”
“Of course, of course. The chorus, I remember. Didn’t you bring the photos and the press release in to the newspaper? How’s the show going, Carlinhos from the Chorus?”
“Not great—you know how it is.” He dug his hands into the depths of his pockets, rocking forward and back as though having a catatonic episode. “We canceled today. Only half a dozen people. This fucking crisis, right?”
“SO fucked,” Pérsio agreed, and then, looking directly at the three girls at the next table, he repeated, “So fucked. I don’t know where it’ll end. The theater, don’t even start. The arts, in general.”
Perfect cue. Santiago went back to taking slow drags on his cigarette, the cognac, the wine, to his myopia, to looking around. But there was nothing going on: the three girls at the next table fought over the last slice of pizza (anchovy, he noted), one of the babies at the large table slept, sunk into its mother’s full breast while someone sang la stata sera cominciata e giá finitta in a melancholy tone, the wind blew outside, the guy with the pencil-thin mustache and the fat girl with the braids had left and some frenetic Japanese had taken over the table, speaking a language full of tiny little spasms.
Practically breathless, Carlinhos swooped. “So yeah that’s why we need support you know we’re a cooperative we’re all young people everyone’s put money together it’s super-tough you know so if you could lend a hand there at the paper, you know how it is, the publicity always helps, it’s vital, it all depends on the good nature of a few just a matter of believing in the project and getting behind it.”
Pérsio put Santiago’s glasses on. He crossed his arms, tilting his head with a professional air. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do. It’s not up to me—there are the higher ups, you know, who have more say. You have your director, I have my editor. It’s they who decide.”
“We are grateful.” Carlinhos bowed his head. He made a belated and gracious gesture that said I-don’t-mean-to-interrupt-anything-between-you, squeezed Santiago’s hand somewhat complicitly, and disappeared between the tables.
Pérsio removed Santiago’s eyeglasses, crossed his silverware, and pushed his plate back. He seemed miserable. He grabbed another cigarette and lit it with the butt that Santiago was about to put out. “Christ. There’s always one. The next time I say some place is normal, spit in my face, got it?”
“Or I could call Rejane,” Santiago joked.
“Wonderful. Call Rejane and order her to stand at the door and scream ‘Faaaaaaaaggot!’ at the top of her lungs so that everybody can hear.” Pérsio licked his burned fingers again.
“Shit. A shit profession. Do you know what I did last night? I wasted three sheets of paper bar-ba-rous-ly savaging that Antigone. Especially the chorus, who appear to suffer from a lack of motor control, squirming around like contortionists. Who didn’t memorize the script. Who should go back to making asinine children’s theater, the kind with hand puppets. Who would have thought that Antigone would come to an end in Mooca? And I—who actually enjoyed the theater—am sick of it. I see a stage and I want to go out and smack everyone. The chorus has at least twenty people. That’s twenty enemies, you realize? You need a patron saint strong enough to protect you. Don’t you find it the absolute worst thing to keep offering opinions on other people’s work without really knowing the other guy’s story?”
“I grade tests.”
“Ten years. Drama class. All those monsters screaming in the street. Ask for the check, I’m fed up with this place. Poor kid, he must live in Pirituba. He has to eat quickly because he takes the metro back. Does the metro go to Pirituba? He lives in a BNH housing complex, with his sister the seamstress and his disabled mother. He sleeps on the top bunk of a bunk bed. His brother, who’s a riot cop, sleeps in the bottom bunk. And tomorrow it’ll appear in the newspaper what an idiot he is. Signed by me.”
Santiago told him he was exaggerating, that he was just playing a role, that it wasn’t as serious as he made it out to be, but he wouldn’t stop. Santiago called the waiter.
“God!” he said in English. “Ten years. Did you take it in the ass in those ten years?”
Pérsio tapped his knife against the wineglass, his eyes bloodshot. “Your ass, that’s what it’s about. Ultimately that’s what it boils down to. If I just did this with my fingers, Carlinhos would fall at my feet and take it in the ass in public. Or he’d fuck my ass. It might even be nice. At his size, he must have a great dick. Carlinhos, Paulinho, Luizinho, all the inhos with their huge keychains. I’d like to smack them all. Ass, ass, ass,” he repeated. The girls at the other table stood up, watching the whole time. “Those monsters—for fuck’s sake, I was only thirteen. I was disgusted. Between men, love is sex is ass is shit. Did you know I can’t stand shit? I see a guy and I like him and all, and then I think, Deus, soon we’ll go to bed and suck here, suck there, grasp, drool, grind, bite, and in the end there’s the ass and shit everywhere. You always end up taking it in the ass or fucking the other’s ass. If you take it, that’s not even the half of it. There’s the pain, the fucking pain. Hell, it hurts like hell. Even so, there are ways, spit, creams. But it’s disgusting to think that the other guy’s dick is going to come out of there covered in your shit. Even in the most respectable cases, can you imagine Verlaine fucking Rimbaud? And if you fuck him, you have the other guy’s shit glued to your cock. Even in the dark, you feel it. It’s impossible not to be aware of it. No matter how clean you both are that smell endures, that smell of shit loose in the air. Sometimes I go to the bathroom in the dark and wash my dick with my eyes shut, soap it up good with the tap full blast, so that I can pretend that all that snot-like filth is from the soap, not from the shit. But the stench of the shit is always stronger. Stronger than anything. Is there a love that can fend it off? Now you tell me,” he banged Santiago’s eyeglasses against the table, so hard that Santiago was afraid the lenses would break. But they didn’t break. “However many flowers and laughs and kisses and caresses and, crap, mutual understanding and ma-tu-ri-ty. However much in love you are, however amazing. For me, never. Everything smells of shit. Even if you don’t see it. Can’t feel it. In the dark. The next day, straightening the sheets, by chance you end up finding a small stinking stain: shit, pure shit. Don’t talk to me about sexual liberation, tell me it’s natural, or nothing is too much trouble, or it’s a choice like any other, or whatever else. Who’s gonna stop me being sick of the smell of shit? Love between men always smells of shit. That’s why I can’t stand it. One month, two. You cover it up, disguise it, use Vaseline, soap, but the smell of shit stays stuck to your skin. I can’t accept a love that’s synonymous with the asshole, with the smell of shit. So I say this to my therapist and he’d always repeat, ‘But what’s sooo disgusting about shit, anyway?’ Really? What do you mean, what’s sooo disgusting? It’s more than disgusting, fuck. And not just in terms of homosexuality. Actually, I will never accept that human beings have assholes and shit. Can you imagine Virginia Woolf shitting? I’m only talking about this now because we finished eating. If I’d said something before, no one would have been able to eat anything.”
The waiter brought the bill and two coffees. Pérsio continued.
“Last night I underlined some sentences in a book by Anderson. The girl with the red shoes. The curse, when the angel says . . .”
“‘Dance you shall, you shall dance forever.’ Isn’t that it?”
“How did you know?”
“I saw it in your room. It was open.”
“Well, it’s like that. A curse. Forever. It only stops when they amputate the girl’s feet. When you die, do you lose a piece of yourself? When you negate yourself? When you swear off and never fuck again? I can’t do that. Jean Genet would spit in my face . . . Then you say, so stop. I try. I manage a week, two weeks without fucking. Then I miss it. So I go to the corner and grab the first guy who walks by. I ask how much, anyone, nordestino, hustler, crioulo, no problem. It’s quick: towels, sink, condoms, that’s it. The money, defined roles, no entanglement. They’ve robbed me before, one day they’ll kill me. But is that what they call love? Your story, I haven’t had anything like it. I’ve just had glimpses, it seemed promised, all set, but it never happened. I never managed it, I wasn’t able, it must be my fault. Oh, how banal. To what extent did circumstances not favor me, or was it me who didn’t favor the circumstances?”
Santiago put his eyeglasses back on. He reached his hand out to take the bill.
“How much was it?”
“I’ve got it, don’t worry.”
“We’ll split it then.”
Santiago placed two bills on the small plastic dish. Pérsio foraged through the pockets of his green jacket on the back of his chair. He grabbed the two bills and wrote a check. He insisted.
“The shit, man. What do I do?”
“You forget it. I don’t know. It’s not that important. And if it was stronger?”
“No, of course not. Love. I don’t know, such a ridiculous word.”
“Love doesn’t exist. It’s a capitalist invention.”
“All right. But what if . . . Let’s suppose that the two people, the two guys, really like each other.”
“Which is difficult enough.”
“Maybe it is, but . . . Let’s suppose. I’ve already experienced that. And if they really like each other? If the touch of the other was somehow, suddenly, good? If the smell of the other’s sweat was good as well? If all the smells coming from his body were good: his feet, his mouth, early in the morning; good, normal smells, just because they belong to the other person. Because they’re familiar smells, secret. Because no one else knows about them who hasn’t stuck their nose in there, their tongue in there, deep inside, deep in the flesh, right into the smells. And if everything that you find disgusting was precisely what we call love? That’s when it happens, when you become most intimate. So intimate, but so intimate that all of a sudden there is no disgust at all anymore. You have smells too. People have smells. It’s natural. Animals smell each other. What do you want? Virgin white lace? Couldn’t it be that love starts when disgust, hygiene, or any one of those words—sorry, you’re going to laugh—when any one of those bourgeois little words no longer have meaning? If all of this, if you throw yourself in shit, if you don’t just tolerate and accept the other’s shit but rise above it or even enjoy it because all of a sudden you can even enjoy, without it having to be a perversion, what if all this was what they call love? Love in the sense of intimacy, of profound knowledge. Of the poverty and also the nobility of the other’s body. If love were the courage to face shit itself. And then, a moment later, it wouldn’t even be courage at all, because it would no longer be important. What matters is having known the body of another person as intimately as only you can know your own body. Because then you can love yourself as well.”
Pérsio put his jacket on, cigarette pressed between his lips.
“Very inspirational,” he said, squinting his eyes to avoid the smoke, “But who knows, who knows? So therefore you’ve concluded that I don’t understand shit about love.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But it could be true. My problem is a maturity problem, caused by a closeted adolescence. Or one of a bourgeois kid who took their First Communion and will eternally feel guilty about the possibility of pleasure. It’s all so Christian.” He rolled his eyes, “Ah, martyrdom, hair shirts. I must have come to a sudden halt at Peter Pan. Flesh is unbearable, I either act like a sort of sexual prude—purely nonphysical—or else I’m voraciously lewd.”
Pérsio was going to say something else, but he suddenly extended his arms across the table and grabbed hold of Santiago’s shoulders. He squeezed tight. The warm scent of leftover pizza floating in oil, full ashtray, empty glasses, plates piled between them, pieces of linguiça, olive pits, melted cheese, greasy strips of ham. Santiago almost couldn’t make out what he said, the confused words spilling out from between teeth which clenched a cigarette.
“Did you know I like you? I like you very much, babe.”
From Pela noite. By arrangement with the estate of Caio Fernando Abreu. Translation © 2017 by Ed Moreno. All rights reserved.