Love is blind but neighbors are not. Luísa and I learned this when we still wore our hair in braids. A young lady does not push away her plate when she finishes a meal, she does not handle money, she does not eat black beans, and she never allows her personal affairs to be the subject of the neighbors’ gossip. People talked a great deal back then, and not much of it was kind. They had forked tongues, as our governesses often said. A young lady has to be vigilant. If not, she will be lost.
We did not have a mother—she died of dengue fever when Luísa and I were both too young to remember her—so it was up to our governesses to teach us what was proper and what wasn’t. They were stiff-backed, thin-lipped women brought up in convents. Most were too refined to be shop girls yet too poor to be senhoras. They had education but not opportunity, which made them bitter and often cruel. When we were girls, Luísa and I liked to huddle in the kitchen pantry in the hopes of hearing them gossip over lunch. “So-and-so returned from Portugal and could not marry because she was lost,” they said. Or, “I saw so-and-so kissing at her front gate. That family should be watchful or she’ll be lost.”
One such woman lived on our street. She was unmarried and confined indoors by her brother, allowed only to attend church. During Sunday mass she sat three pews behind us. Luísa and I twisted in our seats to stare at her. She was pretty, with bobbed hair and thick lips. Once, she caught us staring and beneath her black mantilla she flashed a smile. Luísa and I quickly turned around, squeezing each other’s hands in pleasure and fear.
Only later did we learn what it means to be lost. A man brings his good name to a marriage, while a lady brings her virtue, her honor. If she does not become a senhora, but instead a spinster or a nun, her honor is even more important because it is all that remains of her youth. And so she must preserve it as she would preserve her family’s silver or her deceased parents’ portraits, keeping them spotless and untouched until her last days.
Luísa has dark hair with streaks of gray at the temples. Her top teeth protrude. She has a wide, flat face with a mole on her right cheek that is as black and round as a papaya seed. I’m not sure what shoes she is wearing. I found her usual shoes—a sensible pair we purchased together at the Esposende shop—in her closet. Luísa had wanted to try on a dozen different pairs that day, all open-toed and heeled, but none of them suited her age. She must have purchased a new pair, secretly. I’ve informed the police of this, but they aren’t interested.
“Do you know how many traffic accidents we’ve had today?” the Major asked on my first visit to the station. “Do you know how many assaults?”
I’d waited for two hours in the reception area, where it was as hot as purgatory. I’d given them my full name. A century ago the Porto family owned the largest textile mill in Recife; and although my grandfather had sold it long before I was born, I believed our name still carried its luster.
The Major sat behind a long wooden desk with a water cooler beside it. He wore a khaki uniform with braided tassels at the shoulders.
“Is she missing, or is she gone?” he asked.
“What is the difference?” I replied. The water cooler gurgled. The Major had a scanty beard. Papai had never trusted men with scanty beards.
The difference was that the police were very busy, the Major explained. A group of landless peasants had staged a protest at the INCRA office. They had taken over the building and were holding the tax collectors hostage. A bus had overturned on the Agamenon roadway. There had been another shark attack on Boa Viagem Beach, and in Piedade an apartment building had to be evacuated for fear that its foundations were unstable. With all of these tragedies, how could the police be concerned with one missing woman? When I did not respond, the Major began to ask all kinds of terrible questions: if Luísa had a boyfriend (which she didn’t); if she’d simply left me (which she wouldn’t); and finally, if she had done harm to herself. I rose from the plastic chair. My dress clung to the backs of my legs. I collected my gloves and pocketbook and left.
After that, I realized that the police would be of little help. I’ve done my best to contact the few people I still know: the antique dealer, the drugstore clerk, the fruit peddler, who makes me buy his horrible mangoes—all bruised and soft from the heat—in exchange for his complicity, in exchange for his promise that he will look for Luísa. I’ve spoken even to strangers. I’ve asked café owners and lottery vendors to keep a vigilant eye. I tell them to come here, to number 106 Conde da Boa Vista Street, if they see her. I tell them to slip a note under the gate if I’m not in, because it is an urgent matter.
As a child, my sister was a wanderer. Each Sunday after mass, our father took us for strolls along Aurora Street. Though I held tightly to Luísa’s hand, she always found a way to break free from my grip. Papai would wait while I looked for her. I had horrible visions of Luísa crossing the street without watching for trolley cars, or bending too far over the steel railing of the Boa Vista Bridge. I’d eventually find her pressed up against a shop window, or gnawing on a chunk of sugarcane she’d coaxed from a street vendor, or following the peddlers who balanced birdcages upon their heads. I chided her for running off, for dirtying her gloves, for scuffing her good shoes. Then I led her back to the place where Papai was waiting.
When Luísa grew up she was forced to break her habit. We became young ladies, and Papai would not allow us to step out of our front gate alone. The only women to navigate the streets by themselves were housekeepers, or women of the life. The streets were not a place for ladies. Our maids flung kitchen scraps, torn towels, and used mops over our concrete fence. And when our dog, a hulking Fila mastiff, accidentally died after eating rat poison, they dumped its corpse over the fence, too.
Despite the garbage outside the gates, there were days when our neighborhood had a pleasant smell. During wedding celebrations the entire street smelled of grated cinnamon. The scent of lavender meant a new baby. Incense meant a funeral. From the smell you knew whether to send congratulations or condolences. Each house on our street was more beautiful than the next. Each had gardens and Portuguese tile frescos and wrought iron gates with large, ceramic pinha fruits cemented to the tops of their ledges—the larger the ceramic fruit, the more prestigious the family. Our pinhas were stolen not too long ago, pried off their pillars while we slept. It is a shame.
The city has changed. Recife is filled with cars and air-conditioned buses. No one lives in houses anymore. They prefer to live stacked one on top of the other in apartment buildings that rise—square and white—from the ground like tombs. Evangelicals preach through loudspeakers at all hours of the night. Street children hold shards of florescent glass in their hands, ready to rob any unsuspecting pedestrian. And everywhere trash piles blaze; the air smells of burning plastic. One by one, all of the great families that lived on our street—the Lundgrens, the Feijós, the Albuquerques—moved to São Paulo or to Rio de Janeiro, or into the high-rise apartments that now line Boa Viagem Beach. The house catercorner to ours was painted a gaudy yellow and transformed into an auto mechanic’s shop. Another house became a luncheonette. The house where the lost woman lived now has boards sealing its windows and doors.
After Papai died twelve years ago, the only original residents left on our street were Luísa, myself, and our neighbor, Sílvio Barbosa Lobo.
Luísa left the house once a week, usually on Thursdays, with one of our father’s books wrapped tightly in a kitchen cloth. She wore her hair pulled back, with lines along her scalp from the teeth of her comb. Papai collected books, special-ordering hundreds of leather-bound volumes from a shop in Rio de Janeiro and keeping them under lock and key in his study. Inside each front cover is scrawled our father’s initials—B. C. P.—in fading fountain-pen ink, along with a warning: Do not lend to anyone! Since Papai’s death, Luísa has taken one book each week to the antique dealer.
Luísa was more comfortable in the street than I was. After Papai, this became a blessing. We had to dismiss our errand boy, leaving Luísa and me to do the grocery shopping. The first time we ventured to the outdoor market, I could not keep my hands from trembling. We split up, each of us putting half of that week’s book money into her purse. It required an extraordinary amount of concentration for me to hold onto my belongings in that jostling crowd, to make sure I did not step on rancid garbage, and to avoid the dark, oily puddles scattered like booby traps around the wooden stalls. When I saw Luísa, her arms were filled with groceries; I had none. After this, I let her do the shopping alone. One afternoon, she came home with a carton of cigarettes.
A few years after Papai’s death, our neighbor, Mr. Lobo, became sick with cancer. The doctors removed his vocal cords. His estranged second wife took control of his finances. She left the house and hired a nurse who cooked his meals and confiscated his cigarettes. The nurse wasn’t a person of quality—she let Mr. Lobo wander the block in his soiled pajama bottoms, looking for discarded cigarette butts and smoking them when he could. I wasn’t fond of Mr. Lobo, but I’m not heartless. I never objected to the cigarettes. I never complained when he interrupted our breakfast every morning.
At 7 a.m. each day, Mr. Lobo appeared at our front gate, wearing only pajama bottoms. He held his arms over his head and smacked his hands together, producing a series of loud, stern claps. When he saw Luísa and me at the window, he clapped harder. The skin on his arms and chest shook.
“He looks like one of Papai’s books,” Luísa said.
The leather jackets on the books had been badly stretched over their covers; as they aged, they loosened and sometimes split. Luísa held dozens of those books in her lap each week, trying to repair their cracked spines with a needle and thread, furiously smoothing the leather with the flat end of her palm, and sometimes chucking one onto the floor in frustration.
“He looks like a poor soul,” I said. “A lost soul.”
I left the window and lifted the carton of cigarettes from our sewing closet. Mr. Lobo used to smoke imported cigarettes, with each pack wrapped in gold foil. Luísa had purchased a more economical brand.
I slipped a single, yellowed cigarette from the cellophane wrapping.
“We should open a new package,” Luísa said. “That’s stale.”
“Cigarettes aren’t bread,” I said.
Outside, Mr. Lobo’s clapping persisted.
As soon as Luísa opened the front door he put his hands at his sides. I walked to the gate with my sister, but didn’t show Mr. Lobo the cigarette straight away. He kept his eyes on my closed fist, his Adam’s apple bobbing beneath the square scar on his throat. On his left shoulder was a jagged oval that looked as if the skin had melted and grown back tighter and shinier. In his youth he had fallen off a motorbike and had skidded along the ground. Beneath the scar’s shining skin were bumps, bits of rock that had lodged there and had never come out.
I held the cigarette out to him. Luísa took it from my hand.
“Here, Sílvio,” she said.
Mr. Lobo snatched the cigarette. He closed his eyes and smelled it, clicking his tongue as if admonishing a wayward child. The flap on the front of his pajamas billowed open in the breeze. I turned away. Mr. Lobo put the cigarette in his mouth and shuffled back to his house, fumbling in his pocket for a match.
“Let me give him the cigarette from now on,” Luísa whispered. “You hold it out like he’s going to bite your hand.”
Her lips were slick and pink. She wore lip color only on the days she sold books.
“I do no such thing. He’s fortunate we give him anything at all,” I said, staring at her pink mouth. “And don’t slip him another one. Only one per day—that was our agreement. This isn’t a bodega.”
Luísa didn’t follow me inside. She stood at the gate and watched Mr. Lobo, waiting for him to look back, to wave or smile or give some sign of thanks. I knew he wouldn’t.
Luísa had always looked past Mr. Lobo’s bad behavior, as if he were a child or a wild animal—helpless, at times perverse, and therefore excused from common courtesy. She felt sorry for him after his operation; I didn’t. Mr. Lobo was lucid. There was purpose in the way he clapped outside our front gate, in the admonishing clicking of his tongue, in the way he turned his head and expertly spit thick wads of mucus into the street. Despite all of this, Luísa believed that Sílvio Barbosa Lobo was a gentleman. I knew he never had been.
Mr. Lobo had the deep, raspy voice of a radio announcer. His hair was so thick and shining that he didn’t need to dress it in pomade like the other men on our street. He wore his shirts open at the collar. His suits were made of linen and were always wrinkled.
“We live below the equator, Bernardo!” Mr. Lobo often exclaimed to Papai, who even in the days before his death insisted on wearing combed wool suits. “There’s no need to dress like a gringo.”
When we were girls, Mr. Lobo had not been interested in visiting our home. But as the neighborhood changed, as Papai aged, and as Luísa and I reached our early thirties—already deep into our spinsterhood—Mr. Lobo appeared more regularly at our door. Papai enjoyed his visits. He ushered Mr. Lobo into his study, where they puffed on cigars and spoke of politics, or of Mr. Lobo’s adventures as a young man.
I brought them coffee and cake while Luísa lingered near the door. She became petulant and quiet when I wouldn’t let her serve them. I wasn’t monopolizing our guest’s attention; I was guarding Luísa’s best interests.
The gentlemen in our neighborhood, especially the bachelors, never met our eyes, aware that their stares could compromise a woman. Mr. Lobo never understood this. His stare was frank, insistent. Each time I served coffee, I tried very hard not to meet his gaze; I focused on his mouth, on his yellowing teeth, on the laugh lines around his lips. But there were times when I blundered. There were times when I looked up and felt a shiver, a nervous heat in the onslaught of his dark eyes.
Worse still, Mr. Lobo acted the same way in public. Whenever he saw Luísa and me outside of our gate, he never removed his fedora. He never took the cigarette out of his mouth before he spoke. He stared.
“It is his way,” Luísa said. “He was never taught such silly conventions.”
Even as she grew older, as her hair grayed and her body thickened, Luísa retained her childlike beliefs. We were raised in tame times, times when people respected the barriers that existed to protect them. Those who had been well guarded were always the ones who deemed such conventions silly or stifling. It’s those who lapsed, those who skirted these barriers, who ultimately saw their value.
When he first took residence on our street, Mr. Lobo delivered boxes of cigars to each of his neighbors. It was a terrible mistake. In those days, one distributed flowers or perfumed note cards, never tobacco products. Luísa was a small child when this occurred; and though I was old enough to recollect it, I wasn’t allowed to answer the door. I heard many accounts of the event though, and even now I can picture it: a young Sílvio Barbosa Lobo holding a stack of cigar boxes and startling the maids and doormen with his loud knock. I know for certain that Mr. Lobo had not physically delivered the cigars—despite his lack of social graces, even he knew to send a servant when making deliveries—but all the same, I pictured it that way.
As we grew up, rumors about Sílvio Barbosa Lobo circulated throughout our street like a bad scent. Only one was doubtless: he was a wood expert. He had come from a poor family and had made his fortune in lumber, negotiating the rights to huge tracts of forest in Amazonas, stripping them clean, and then shipping the wood to sawmills along the coast. Whenever guests came to our home, Papai pointed to Sílvio Barbosa Lobo’s house.
“We live next door to a self-made man,” he chuckled; as time passed I heard less mockery and more envy in his voice.
Our father was an intellectual, not a businessman. His father had inherited the Porto Textile Company and had sold it, living off the spoils. Our father never needed to work, to bargain, to make decisions. He purchased only the softest cotton for his dress shirts and only imported tobacco for his pipes. He decorated his study simply yet elegantly; and after he passed, Luísa and I didn’t have the courage to change it. There are still two wilting cigars in their silver case. His fountain pen and letter opener sit upright in their wooden holder, his brass globe with Brazil facing upward, just the way Papai liked it.
As we grew older, Papai slowly got rid of our help. The first to go were the governesses, then the driver, the gardener, the household maids, the cook, and lastly the washwoman, which was the worst loss. I didn’t mind cooking or cleaning, but when Luísa and I had to do the wash—to scrub our dresses and Papai’s soiled bedsheets—it made our hands dry and chapped, requiring us to wear gloves any time we left the house.
Papai was close-lipped about his finances. It was only after he died that I saw the red entries in his ledgers. We had the house and all of its contents, but nothing else. Our governesses had taught us how to calculate household accounts without getting ink on our fingers, how to use a handkerchief to grasp cruzeiro notes so as not to soil our hands with something as tawdry as money, but they had never taught us where this money came from, or what to do if it ran out.
We decided to sell the books first. It would’ve been too hard to part with Mother’s favorite gold-rimmed cups and saucers, our silver teaspoons, our wooden tray with the scene of the Portuguese conquest depicted on its lacquered face. Luísa was upset. She didn’t say so, yet I could see it in the set of her mouth, in the way she balled her hands into fists. I, too, was frightened; I remembered our tedious bookkeeping lessons, dividing household expenses into one column and income into another. Eventually we would run through all of the books, all of the silverware, the coffee sets, the goblets, the furniture. The only things left would be Luísa and I. Still, I tried to smile and reason that it was a blessing of sorts; at least there were no debts.
“I know the difference between a blessing and a punishment,” Luísa said as she sorted through our father’s books.
I did not chastise her. Instead, I helped place the books in piles, separating those that had watercolor plates, those that were first editions, and those that had the authors’ signatures scrawled beside our father’s.
One afternoon, a month before her disappearance, Luísa took much longer than usual selling our weekly book. She had gotten into the habit of dawdling while she was out, but she had never missed lunch. I sat in the kitchen mending my dress, distracted by the clock. Our food had gone cold, my stitches more uneven and loose with each minute that passed. I ripped them out and began again.
Outside, I heard a yelp. It was Luísa.
“Help!” she cried. Her voice was high and sharp. I felt a pain in my chest, as if someone were pinching my heart.
I tugged my dress over my slip and ran to the window. Luísa hugged her purse. A boy with matted hair and skinny arms lunged for her. When I opened the front door, Luísa teetered. Her foot had slipped into a hole in the broken sidewalk. The boy gripped her purse, leaned back, and yanked hard. Luísa toppled forward. Her knees scraped the cement. Her hair loosened from its bun and a gray wisp fell into her face.
I shouted something—I can’t remember what—and ran to the sidewalk. The boy suddenly let go of Luísa’s purse; a slapping sound was coming from the east end of our fence. I turned to face it. Mr. Lobo ran toward us, his slippers smacking the pavement. His mouth was open, contorted in a shout from which no sound came. His jowls trembled with each heavy step. A series of thick clicks erupted from his throat. The boy ran.
Mr. Lobo stared. His ribs expanded and contracted like a terrible accordion. He clicked his tongue twice. I felt a breeze on my back—I’d forgotten to zipper my dress. I fumbled for the clasp. By the time I’d closed it, he’d turned and walked back to his house.
I knelt beside my sister. Her hands were red from tugging on the straps of her purse. Our groceries were scattered along the pavement. Two new tubes of lipstick had fallen from one of the bags. Luísa clawed at the ground, trying to hide them. I pretended not to see.
I helped Luísa inside. I did not ask where she had been or why she had missed lunch. She refused to let me put peroxide and bandages on her scraped knees. Without a word, she went upstairs to our room and clicked on her portable radio. The songs—syrupy ballads by women who sang so agonizingly about love they sounded crazed—swirled down to the kitchen, where I reheated our food and made tea. I left the hot water kettle on the burner so that its whistle would cover the sounds of those songs.
The next day, I found Luísa sitting on a low stool in the kitchen. She straddled a grater and passed cobs of sweet corn over its metal teeth. Kernels and juices fell into a clay bowl by her feet. There was a pitcher of coconut milk on the counter, and cinnamon sticks and cloves in brown bags beside the sink.
“What are you making?” I asked, though I already knew.
“You don’t like canjica.”
“It’s for Sílvio. To thank him.”
Luísa wiped her brow and began grating again. The bandages on her knees were spotted with dried blood.
“Why don’t you just thank Mr. Lobo, then? Or better yet, say a prayer for him. You don’t know how long it takes to make canjica pudding.”
“I know how long it takes,” Luísa said. “He deserves it.”
She chucked a wet cob into a brown paper bag and grabbed a new one. Luísa grated the corncob hard, moving fast against the metal. Sweat ran along the sides of her face and down the slope of her neck.
Luísa rarely prepared food. When our hired chef left, years ago, Papai declared me the better cook and I began to make all of our meals. Papai attributed to each of us certain talents. Only Luísa was good at embroidery. She was responsible for sewing the family initials onto his handkerchiefs and hand towels. Only I was allowed to cut Papai’s hair when he stopped going to barbershops. Luísa was the one who appreciated literature, while I was the one skilled at mathematics. Each of us tried to excel at the other’s talents, but it was no use. Once Papai had declared one of us more capable, the other was shut out, left waiting for a new talent to be ascribed to her.
“It was that man’s duty to help you,” I continued. “He doesn’t need to be compensated. And you shouldn’t visit his house unaccompanied. That’s how rumors get started.”
Luísa laughed. She continued grating. Her voice shook with the up and down rhythm. “You’ll have to come with me then.”
Mr. Lobo used to throw wild parties in his home. When we were girls, Luísa and I fell asleep to the sounds of clinking glasses and popping corks, to women’s laughter and men’s shouts. Mr. Lobo’s first wife had left him and taken their children to live across town in Casa Forte, giving him free rein of the house. From our bedroom window we could see Mr. Lobo’s backyard, with its shining swimming pool and rows of expertly pruned fruit trees. Luísa and I knelt by the window in our nightgowns, whispering to one another and holding our breath whenever someone came out of the house for a smoke or a stroll, fleeing the commotion inside. For the party guests Mr. Lobo’s backyard was a refuge. They never imagined that two curious girls were watching them, witnesses to fierce arguments, ardent whispers, violent retching.
One night, the party was unusually loud, and Luísa and I stayed up late watching from the window. We’d put pillows under our knees to prevent them from bruising. I could not keep my eyes open; Luísa nudged me awake. Mr. Lobo guided a woman outside. A cigarette glowing in his mouth, he stood at the isolated end of the swimming pool, the one closest to our window. Light from the water reflected in undulating stripes against their bodies. Mr. Lobo’s tuxedo was rumpled. He ran his hands along the woman’s shoulders and down her arms. He put out his cigarette and pulled her gently toward him.
Their kiss was not like those we had seen in the cinema. One of our governesses—a chubby, kind woman whom Papai fired not long after her arrival—snuck Luísa and me into a matinee. The kiss we saw in the picture looked violent and uncomfortable. The actor crumpled the woman in his arms. Mr. Lobo’s kiss was just the opposite. It was his lady friend who held onto him, clasping his face and neck, pressing her hand to his shoulder.
Beside me, I heard a sharp intake of breath. I looked at Luísa. Her thick eyebrows furrowed. Her lips pressed so tightly together that her chin wrinkled with the effort. She was fourteen at the time and still wore her hair in two long black braids. I’d stopped wearing my hair like that; at sixteen, I was no longer a child but a young lady. I was obliged to set an example.
Ever since our mother died, I’ve felt the burden of being the lady of the house. I was the one who woke Luísa each morning, who brushed her hair, who pulled her stockings straight. Once, Papai took us to the grand opening of the Sloper department store downtown, to see the first escalator in all of Recife. Luísa wanted to ride the escalator up and down for hours. Secretly, so did I. But Papai said that we were to take two turns, no more. It would have been undignified for us to ride it dozens of times like the poorer children; and though I understood this, Luísa did not. I spent our two turns nervous and rigid, calculating how and when I would pull her off so she wouldn’t make a scene.
That night in our bedroom, I too wanted to kneel at the window until morning. I too wanted to see how Mr. Lobo’s kiss would end, how he would lead the woman away and escort her inside. Instead I stood, my legs tingling, and pulled Luísa from the window.
“Life is filled with obligations. No matter how cleverly we try to escape them, it is no use. Eventually, they must be fulfilled.”
I read this in the romantic novel Luísa kept by her bed. It is from Papai’s collection, the only book she refused to sell. Its spine is cracked, its pages dog-eared, and every phrase underlined except for the one above.
Our obligations were always clear. It was the youngest daughter’s duty to care for her parents until they passed away. It was the oldest daughter’s duty to marry well. Still, Luísa and I daydreamed of different outcomes. We were young and our lives lay before us, long and luminous yet always close together, like the twin tracks of a trolley car.
I was an attractive girl, but attractiveness was only one of a number of assets required of a young lady to make a good marriage. At the time, the International Club held weekly boate dançantes for young people and their chaperones. There were similar events at the British Club and at the Portuguese, German, and Nautical clubs. Unfortunately, Papai was forced to cancel his memberships. Even if he hadn’t, Luísa and I did not have formal gowns.
Despite these obstacles, I had the Porto name and a good education, so suitors did occasionally appear. None of them was from what Papai considered a fine family; and if one had been Papai would have been right to be suspicious—with no dowry to speak of, I was considered a third-tier option for boys from those families. They might court me, yet they would never marry me. And if a long courtship suddenly broke off, everyone suspected that something unseemly had happened, and the blame always fell upon the girl.
One by one, my few potential suitors were dismissed. All but Kleber Dantas. The Dantas family was of German descent and owned a successful roof tile factory in Carpina. The youngest son, Kleber, had red hair and pink skin that splotched when he laughed. Behind his back, Luísa called him Saúva—like the red ants that invaded our garden. It made me furious. We courted for six months. Each Saturday Kleber traveled to Recife and took me to the cinema or for a stroll around Derby Square. Luísa was our chaperone. Kleber was polite to her; he bought her ice cream or roasted corn. Luísa enjoyed our outings. I was always anxious to get home.
As our courtship grew more serious, Luísa and I traveled to Carpina to visit Kleber’s home, where he lived with his mother. The house was lovely: white and gabled with a couple of peacocks roaming the yard. Mrs. Dantas was an old woman who still wore the wasp-waisted corsets that had gone out of fashion decades before. She inspected Luísa and me from head to foot before extending her hand.
That night, after dinner, I excused myself for bed. Luísa had already gone up to our guest room. Mrs. Dantas was knitting in her study. Kleber had said he was going for a smoke outside, but when I reached the top of the stairs he caught me in the hallway. I was startled and nervous. It was the first time we had been alone. Sometimes in the cinema, when the room darkened, Kleber grasped my hand tightly, squeezing it as if it were a small animal that would break free from his grip. I always feared Luísa would see.
In the hallway of his house, Kleber held my hand and then came closer. He had a habit of putting menthol rub beneath his nostrils to help his sinuses. The smell of it made my nose tingle. Kleber’s mouth was thin and insistent. I let him press it against mine until he was satisfied, then I wished him a good night.
I washed my mouth three times before bed, but the smell of menthol sat in my nose all night. I could not sleep. The bedsheets were stiff with starch. The peacocks garbled noisily outside our window. Luísa slept open-mouthed beside me. Once I was married, it would be Kleber next to me and not my sister. Every night I would sleep between those stiff sheets. Every day I would hear those birds and be forced to care for a corseted mother-in-law who acted as if she were doing me a great service. As if, at twenty-five, I was nothing better than a bruised fruit.
The next day I said I felt ill. I made a fuss. I told Kleber to take us back to Recife. After that disastrous visit, Kleber no longer stopped by our house. His mother declared that I had a weak constitution, that I could not live in the countryside, and that Luísa was quiet and shiftless. I knew the courtship would unravel the minute I insisted on going home. I knew I was too old to expect another offer of marriage; but at that moment, I didn’t care. The closer we came to our house on Conde da Boa Vista Street, the better I felt. When Kleber finally dropped us off at our gate, my relief faded. Papai would be deeply disappointed.
I walked up the front path, holding tightly to Luísa’s hand. Inside, Papai’s study was filled with cigar smoke. Sílvio Barbosa Lobo sat in the chair beside our father. Papai’s brow furrowed when he saw me.
“Back so soon?” he asked.
“When is the wedding?” Mr. Lobo chuckled.
I met his eyes. His smile faded, his dark eyebrows sloped downward. He started to lift himself from the chair; but before he rose, I backed out and closed the study door.
When Mr. Lobo was ready to leave, Papai told me to bring him his hat and show him to the door, as I always did. Luísa stood at the foot of the stairs, listening. I handed Mr. Lobo his fedora.
“I know that Kleber Dantas,” he said. “I was telling your father—I’ve done business with him. He never pays on time. That factory of his will go under any day now.”
“Mr. Dantas is a gentleman,” I said, staring at his shirt collar. It was open, revealing his tan neck where, years later, a square scar would be.
Mr. Lobo put on his hat and left.
As soon as the canjica pudding cooled, Luísa placed it in our best glass bowl and wrapped it in an embroidered towel.
Mr. Lobo’s nurse answered the door. She was a stocky, bug-eyed woman. She wiped her hands on her stained apron and waved us inside. Mr. Lobo stood behind her. A clicking noise erupted from his throat; and as if this sound were a command, the nurse quickly took the pudding from Luísa and left the three of us in the dark foyer.
Mr. Lobo led us into the sitting room. Thick blue curtains were drawn over all of the windows but one, which was broken, its buckling glass sealed with silver tape. In the corner was a phonograph. Its wooden lid stood open but no record sat on the turntable.
Luísa stared about the room, her head tilting up and down. It was rude, but I did not stop her. It was easy to forget yourself in that room. There were large mahogany chairs covered in fabrics too heavy for Recife’s heat. Some had split open, their stuffing exposed, their velvet shine worn away. There were wooden cabinets with flowers and hummingbirds carved into their blond doors. A buffet made of a single shining brown plank ran the entire length of a wall. Beside each chair stood an end table, its varnished top forever ringed with the residue of wet glasses, its wooden feet carved to resemble talons.
Years ago, the names of those woods were frightening and beautiful to me. Masaranduba. Sucupira. Jacarandá. When pronounced aloud, they sounded like proclamations in a strange, pagan language; when whispered, like words of love. And the woods themselves seemed to take on the mysteries of their names. Knots, swirls, and veins flowed like a current beneath their lacquered surfaces, hinting at a life far away from my own—a life that felt solid and real beneath my fingertips. I know better now. Those names are just labels, like hundreds of others listed in alphabetical order in one of Papai’s botany books. And those woods, like all of the furniture in Mr. Lobo’s house and in our own, were dead.
Luísa walked through the cluttered room, gingerly maneuvering around the couches and chairs and end tables, like a new party guest. She stared at Mr. Lobo as if each of his wheezing breaths held a clue she could not decipher. She reached into the pocket of her dress. I heard the crackling of cellophane. She pressed a pack of cigarettes into his palm.
Mr. Lobo quickly shuffled us outside. At our front gate, he looked back toward his house before opening the pack. He closed his eyes and smoked one cigarette, then another, then another. I pulled Luísa aside.
“He’ll make himself sick,” I whispered.
“He’s already sick.”
“You’ll make him worse.”
“I’m giving him what he wants.”
“He didn’t even thank you.”
“I didn’t do it for thanks.” “Why did you do it then?”
Luísa stared at me for a long time, her dark eyes searching mine as if she were looking at one of our father’s books, scanning the leather cover, fingering each page, rereading each phrase before she quietly wrapped it in a kitchen towel and sold it.
When Mr. Lobo was satisfied, he hid the remainder of the pack in his pajama pants and left. Luísa walked into our house, went upstairs, and turned on her radio.
Just before he died, Papai had called Luísa into his bedroom and not me. He’d grown skinny and yellow from sickness. Beneath his bedsheet, his body had shrunken to the size of a child’s. I stood beside the doorway, listening. In the years after I botched my engagement with Kleber, Papai had acted differently. I could have saved us from ruin but had chosen not to. Each day, Papai made me remember the consequences of that choice.
“Fix my hair,” he ordered Luísa, his voice still loud and commanding. “I want to look decent.”
It was Papai’s final punishment, and like all of his punishments, I accepted it without objection. I gave Luísa his hair scissors, his comb, his can of brilliantine. I told her to cut his hair short on the sides and longer on the top, the way Papai had always instructed me. Then I watched from the doorway as she reluctantly trimmed our father’s hair, parting it to the left, just as he liked it.
When he finally passed a few hours later, Luísa and I put on the black mourning dresses we’d sewn while he was ill. We picked out his best suit. We clipped his nails and placed small wads of cotton into each of his nostrils. Then we ordered a coffin and called the priest.
Luísa lit candles as I placed several sticks of incense at each open window. Most of the families on our street had already moved away. The incense was drowned out by diesel fumes and kitchen grease. Only one mourner picked up the scent and responded to our call.
Sílvio Barbosa Lobo arrived not long after the coffin was delivered. He held his hat in his hands and carried a bundle of lilies. As custom dictated, we placed the coffin in the front foyer, feet facing the door. Luísa and I were not given to hysterics. We’d been taught that only fishmongers’ wives wailed; so when the priest anointed Papai’s forehead and flicked holy water across his body, Luísa and I stayed silent.
No one else appeared at the wake. Sílvio Barbosa Lobo sat on one side of the coffin, Luísa and I on the other. Even as the sky grew dark, and the foyer air hot and thick with candle smoke, Mr. Lobo did not budge. Only once did he lift his head and ask Luísa for a cup of water. She hurried into the kitchen.
In the pocket of my mourning dress I still held Papai’s silver-toothed comb. Luísa had asked me to keep it close, worried that the priest’s holy water would muss Papai’s hair. I stood. My face was flushed from the heat of the candles. My eyes burned from the smoke. Leaning over the coffin, I quickly parted Papai’s hair to the right.
When I sat back down, I saw Sílvio Barbosa Lobo’s smiling eyes staring into mine. I did not look away.
Mr. Lobo died a few days after we delivered the pudding and the cigarettes. One morning, he didn’t clap at the front gate. I waited by the window until lunchtime, when Luísa took my arm and led me away. Later on, his nurse came to our door. She held our glass bowl beneath her arm.
Luísa locked herself in our room and listened to her portable radio. I took a rag and wood oil from the pantry and polished the dining room table, the armoires, the side serving tables, the wicker-backed settee. When I finished those, I oiled our closet shelves and our father’s mahogany shoe racks.
After Mr. Lobo’s death, Luísa disappeared for longer and longer periods each time she left the house to sell our books. She began to come home after dusk, and grew quiet and irritable if I asked where she had been. She picked at her food and took long, scalding baths. One morning she went on her weekly outing and did not return. I did not see her leave. I do not know what shoes she wore. All I know for certain is that she took two books from our father’s shelf instead of one. I pray no harm has come to her.
Near the antique shop there is a pharmacy with large, outdoor bins filled with lipsticks. I like to put my hands in those bins and touch the tubes Luísa may have touched. Afterward, I walk back and forth along Aurora Street, asking the peddlers and the shop owners if they have seen her. I look into the windows of apartment buildings, into the decrepit city park, into the brown waters of the Capibaribe River. At night, it’s hard to sleep. My legs ache. I kneel beside our bedroom window and stare into Mr. Lobo’s deserted yard. His pool is filled with murky water. His fruit trees are tangled and wild. Some nights I hear the crash of breaking glass and wake to see street children throwing rocks into the last panes of his windows. Some nights I sit at the kitchen table and listen for the creak of the front gate, for the sound of Luísa’s steps along the corridor.
I turn on her radio and sift through the things I’ve found in her closet, stuffed behind her childhood dresses: a receipt from a shoe store, a half-empty vial of perfume, a tortoiseshell hair clip that I’ve never seen her wear, a cigarette butt stained with lipstick. I hold these things in my hands and try to imagine this woman, one who would cover herself in such strong perfume, one who would leave behind such good shoes. I cannot. I recall Luísa only as a child—her braids thick, her breath hot and smelling of sour milk. I see her roaming the streets, negotiating the cobblestones with short, purposeful strides.
When she returns, I will not chastise her. I will tell her that I too knew the thrill of escape. For a few weeks after Papai’s death, during those long hours while Luísa sold our books and bought our groceries, I slipped through our back gate. I walked past that pool and into that grove of fruit trees. And then, one day, I was no longer welcome, because despite all of the feverish promises and eager declarations, the kind of man who persuades a lady to discard the rules of propriety is the same kind who eventually discards her. When Luísa returns, perhaps she will have learned this for herself. Or perhaps she’s known it all along.
On the radio, the romantic songs are interrupted by ads for better soap. Outside, the trash piles burn. The buildings rise. Moss grows on the pillars where our ceramic pinhas used to rest. Inside, our silver tarnishes, our lacquered trays dull. Our books loosen from their leather covers and their pages turn to dust upon the shelves. All that’s left is patience, which is a virtue. Those who are lost will be found, or never will be, or already were; and I will remain here, waiting.
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