world is fading, the fat woman in the purple-flowered dress across from me, the
scent of her unwashed body washing over me, Paulo, his sweat and the smell of
his unwashed uncut dick, the taste staining me. . . . She blurs and fades
and is gone, and becomes Paulo, becomes nothing.
rumble swaying; a sharp jolt at mismatched rails. The open window begs in the
airless cell, ranks of cork trees under a sear Alentejo sun. Their trunks mark
time. Orange, recently stripped. Black and smooth last year or maybe a year
before. Getting browner, rougher as time recycles.
His arms are a comfort. The fat lady hands presunto sandwiches to her
children and they devour hard rolls, tearing at the thin slice of tough, dry ham
as she fades. Paulo. Arms.
His arms, comforting, drift and become Carlos, cobblestone in one hand, knife in
the other. He hesitated too long; I had time to draw and unfold and lock mine,
across from the Cais do Sodré. He could have run. Instead, he wanted to fight,
to keep the 4,300 escudos he hustled from me—street hustler of New York and so
naive in Lisboa because it’s Portugal and I can leave my pack where I want
because people are so honest and I can walk the streets at night (though, still,
never without my knife) because it’s not violent here which is why I want to
live here, move here because it’s not New York and I don’t have beautiful
Puerto Ricans asking for blowjobs and pulling razor blades, and cute bar-boys
slipping Mickeys into my beer that make me play dodge ’ems with taxis. Taxis
always win, you know, except that night they didn’t.
thought too long about how this doesn’t happen in Portugal, and I bled. I
thought that maybe he wanted the 5,000 escudos I'd forgotten I'd stashed in my
sock, that he never knew was there and which I’d find in the morning stinking
of sweat. But this time I don’t think of sweat, and wake and wonder what the
fat woman with hams the size of two whole presuntos would look like without her
flowered dress, her tits rolling over her midriff rolling over her gut rolling
over the orifice that bred these kids crying for sandes.
even though Lisboa isn’t New York, and I was bleeding and I realized that even
though I met this guy Carlos in a gay bar—the Bar Cheque-Mate and I’m not
sure if the pun translates—I wasn’t going to suck him either. I might have
to kill him. Bar small and dark, bottled beer only, and that pale. No wine, no
draft, no one worth talking to. One obligatory beer and I was leaving. But
Carlos came in, my age and twenty years younger than anyone else, cute and
showing off, coming over and talking to me in English, and that a nice touch in
a country where I’m presumed to be French.
weren’t talking anymore. Somewhere after “Let’s go to my place” and
around “What’s the knife for?” “You said it was a bad area, eh?” “I
think it’s for me,” there was a swing with a cobblestone and miss, a slash
with a knife and miss and then and I don’t know how, but I got his knife and
threw it, cheap thing, and I got the rock and threw it but not far enough and he
might have reached it but instead he got my knife and suddenly my focus had to
be on getting it back and not getting killed by my own steel, which, after all,
was so much better than his. To be honest, in a secret aside, I think I was cut
up by my own knife; his had to be too dull, cheap thing, but of course details
are kind of blurry.
and trying hard to stay alive and thinking I might have to kill him, kind of
clinically, sort of like watching television and I might have to change the
channel. In the middle of a fight there’s only calculation; later, I could be
with my emotions, but for the moment, it might as well have been a video game.
to gouge out his eyes and he went for mine. I bit him and he bit back and we
pulled each other’s hair and I swore at him in English for swearing at me in
Portuguese when he spoke to me in English all night, and in the consummate
Portuguese insult I said, “Pocaralho, do you have any balls?” when I
tried to crush them and couldn’t find them and was wondering where the large
dick he stroked earlier went as I called him “limp dick” groping for any way
to hurt him back.
then quicker than it started, I got my knife and it was over. He fell or I
stabbed and a couple inches of Victorinox-Brand Swiss Army knife hit something
vital, and it was over. A truncated yelp like a dog under wheels, and tears. The
tears hurt most, burning my hand and arm, dripping into my mind and corroding my
soul. They soaked me more than the blood draining onto me, more than all his
blood could have, more than what I couldn’t absorb, soaking into the grout
between polished cobblestones. A sharp cry, and a bit of gurgling just like the
movies, and he didn’t want or need my few thousand escudos anymore, worth
something less than $30 and that worth killing for.
just in time, the police arrived, tires squealing and lights flashing and sirens
wailing high-low. They looked at me and said something I didn’t understand. I
dropped my knife, suddenly realizing that I had a knife and that I was a
foreigner and so I yelled “Sou estrangeiro” and someone said “English?”
and I said “Americano” not noticing that he wasn’t speaking Portuguese and
not knowing if he meant language or nationality anyway. He asked what happened
while the other two cops kicked the corpse. I tried to explain and gave up. A
spike fell out of Carlos’ pocket. They took my knife and told me to go back to
my pensão, the cheap Portuguese hotel with the shared bath I left
bloodied. It was clearly self-defense and I could go. And self-defense probably
doesn’t even exist under Portuguese law, echo-fascist state; or more likely
killing a junkie is helping the cops so it’s okay I guess, but I didn’t care
and I don’t care and I am free and back in America where I expect shit like
train lurches and slows and lurches again and stops. Vendas Novas. I’m jolted
awake; reality and present and dream and history are one. The smell of presunto
and its purveyor let me focus. I’m still in Portugal but the knife fight is
behind me, left in Lisboa as I try to trade the nightmare of the Cais do Sodré
station for an escape through Fluvial station and a train to the east.
bruised and the cuts have started to heal; I don’t understand, but still, I
should try to draw lessons from this, to analyze it and learn so I don’t make
the same mistakes again. But I’d rather let the gentle swaying of the train
and the airless heat of an Alentejo August soothe me back to sleep. I need the
rest. I also need to block out the fight for awhile. Instead, my mind is a
hustle-trip of stumbling thoughts. How did he get my knife? Why did I skip town
after losing Paulo—literally, I mean, losing him in the dark back alleys of
Porto? How could I have not recognized Carlos for the junk angel he was?
can break free. I know it can, and I can try to think of something else but pain
and blood, but the effort is useless as I slip back into the Cais do Sodré. And
somehow, I don’t care. It just happened and is over and that’s it. No
meditation, no consideration—only dreams on trains and wrenched guts in the
middle of the night as I jump awake sweating and think it’s blood, as I lie
awake for hours desperately trying to think of anything else and only feel tears
dripping onto my arm. And then I think, “He shoots. What if he’s HIV pos,
with his blood all over me and maybe getting into my wounds?” and sleep is
train lurches to a stop. In Évora, I’m supposed to catch the bus that covers
the distance to Elvas that the train no longer does, but this is Portugal and
the schedule is changed and the bus no longer meets my train. Instead of
replaying fights, my mind now has to find the center of town, to find a room and
to start over. Here is as good or bad as anywhere, inspiring in its own right,
ancient city of narrow passages and tourist-abused Roman temple that between
then and now served as a Portuguese butcher market. Somewhere here is irony, the
ruins of the Temple of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, centuries later used for hog
slaughter, and now, floodlit, leering at me in my own hunt, mocking my
slaughter. Irony annoys me. I turn around, grab the next train back to Lisboa.
I don’t care. I just want to say anywhere.
holding up the line. “Porto. São Bento.” As if it matters. The train to
anywhere. I’ll take the next train to fucking anywhere.
He slips me a note with the price on it, figuring that I won’t understand “sete
centos e vinte e cinco escudos.” Probably right. Numbers give me a hell of
Oh. Sim. O comboio parte em dez minutos, sim?” I ask even though I know
that the train leaves in ten minutes; that’s why I picked it. I’m just
compulsive about these things.
Linha dois.” Line two. Where? Realization? Agonizing, more likely.
escudos. That’s my fix for today. A better trip than the cut hash I’ll be
offered when I get off at São Bento Station. A guy in Porto’s gay bar told
me, “The hash they offer you, it’s bad. If you take his offer, you’ll get
robbed. If you don’t get robbed, he’ll sell you shit. If he doesn’t sell
you shit or rob you, he’s new in town and hasn’t learned the game.”
125 kilometers. 2 1/2 hours, give or take. Home. The Portuguese have a saying:
“Braga prays; Coimbra sings; Lisboa parties; Porto works.” Porto is like New
York like that. Working town where I could work too. I walk the few twisting
uphill blocks from the station, slipping on the drizzle-damp cobblestone street,
wine-drunk, to Residencial Madariz, my Praça da Batalha pensão, and next door,
Meia Lua and still in time for supper. São Bento isn’t a random choice.
Lua is my restaurant here, and I know what I’ll order before I enter. Feijoada
brasileiro, Brazilian black bean stew served by the beautiful Brazilian
mulatto who knows my wine and orders cafezinhos for patrons where
espresso is called, simply, café. He wonders about my frantic scribbling
in notebooks and my sketching on the paper tablecloth, acts broken more by my
gazing into the fluorescent lights than by eating. We are both foreigners but
from different realities; he couldn’t understand what drives me here.
wonder again why I gave up so easily on Paulo, looking for him for only a week,
haunting the places we’d wandered, hanging out at O Imperial, the café where
we’d agreed to meet the day after we lost each other before we even knew we’d
lose each other, waiting from opening to closing in the bar where we met,
checking the other gay bars, and cafés, restaurants rumored to be gay. A week,
and I left, and then somehow tried to convince myself that Carlos could be
to relax, to screw up courage, to think. An after-dinner café to calm me,
followed by a glass of Porto Cálem to fortify me. And then it happens, again.
Snap. Lisboa. Cais do Sodré. Knives, blood. This time I didn’t kill him. This
time it’s a history I would prefer, where I can get on top of Carlos. I could
put him in a headlock and keep him from hurting me anymore, but it was a
stalemate. I couldn’t beat him enough to get my money back without letting him
go; if I let him go, he might get his knife. At least I’d gotten mine back and
it was closed and in my pocket, but not before I gave it one last, long, slow
drag across his back, splitting his skin and making him cry out.
driver stopped and watched, without saying anything, doing anything. He just
watched. Carlos yelled for help, the motherfucker, so I just kept yelling, over
and over, “Sou estrangeiro, sou estrangeiro.” The driver must have believed
me, because when he finally got out of his car, he started kicking Carlos in the
head. It was almost comical. He’d kick Carlos, whose head would snap back into
the wall, bounce forward and ricochet off the sidewalk. The driver demanded the
money that Carlos stole from me, and then kicked again. It was like bouncing a
baseball, except for the blood. I struggled to my feet, and kicked Carlos in the
face with the spiteful, remorseless, victorious pride that comes with the guilt
of knowing that someone’s won a battle for you. Finally, Carlos gave up and
threw my money on the ground.
cops arrived, just in time for it all to be over. Carlos struggled to his feet
and ran. They grabbed me, shoving me around and dumping me into the back seat of
one of the cars. They drove to a dark corner of a nearby park. They scared me
more than Carlos did.
got me out of the car and questioned me. I was lucky, in a way—the youngest
cop spoke English and was sympathetic, and took me to a fountain to wash my
wounds; the others were abusive. They caught Carlos a couple minutes later. I
identified him; they beat him more, found his needle, broke it, and let him go.
I was confused. The English-speaking cop left, and I was left defending myself
with broken Portuguese. The other cops confiscated my knife, claiming that it
was a prohibited weapon; I later learned that was a lie. Some cop’s son has a
very nice Swiss Army knife now; everywhere, cops have cops’ sons. They told me
to take a cab back to my pensão; they wouldn’t give me a ride. I decided to
walk, to try to mellow out, maybe hoping I’d run into Carlos again and be able
to finish it. Instead, I returned to my room.
coração que dor venceu!/Enfim, te vejo!” Manuel Bandeira, Brazilian poet
of much excellence and favorite of Paulo: “A heart that pain conquered!/At
last, I see you!” The restaurant closes; the Brazilian gently rousts me from
my daze. The fifteen minutes walk from there to the bar through a cool drizzle
will do me good, clear my mind.
do Vento, the Windmill. Tonight the name strikes me as I hesitate at the door.
The way my life drifts, going wherever it is blown and still never going
anywhere; the hypnotizing swing of the vanes; the vain hope of this quixotic
adventure. What if Paulo is here? We still have nowhere to go to be alone; how
would tonight end any differently?
don’t really have any choice. Before I decide to knock for entry, I’m
recognized and the door is unlocked for me; before I can cross the room, the
bartender has my beer ready, Cristal Tipo Muníque, dark and a little too sweet,
a beer that no one else drinks, that he stocks just for me. He knew I’d be
back, or maybe I never left at all. Paulo hasn’t been back since our last time
together, since his disappearance that night, since our date was sent awry by
the evil master of my pensão, little troll-man gray and hunched over, living
under the steps and barring Paulo’s entry to my room, this still Portugal,
Catholic and nostalgic for Salazar, and monarchists waiting for their chance to
my stool in the corner, and wait. The regulars look at me, talk about me. I have
a reputation here, already, for drinking too much and sucking too well, neither
a Portuguese skill. I go to piss, and suck off a pretty-boy. He blows me, but I
don’t come, I refuse to come, saving myself for Paulo as he swallows my load,
and I wipe and leave, and go back to my barstool. My bruises are healed, the
cuts scabbed over, and I think about Paulo, whom I accuse of inspiration. Maybe
I read too much into our embraces, into our kisses, but I know there was a
chance. The way he looked into my eyes, the way we talked about Bandeira and
Bakunin in a mass of confused Portuguese and English, neither of us fluent
enough to adopt a single language, crafting our own in the only quiet corner of
the bar. So much unlike the other bar-boys I meet, with their superficiality and
ghetto mentalities. Maybe he feels it too and that is why he avoids this place,
or maybe he’s just afraid, scrutinized by family and church, wanting to escape
and not knowing how.
show and I’ll come back tomorrow and a dozen tomorrows more. Across the
street, graffiti mocks me: “Realidade vive onde as fantasias morram—nas
ruas.” “Reality lives where fantasies die”—in the streets. But as
long as this barstool is mine and as long as I can see my reflection in the
shattered mirror where I keep my passions, nothing ends. Nothing ends.