“Do you remember, dear, the hot beaches of Portugal? The sun beating down on the rocks, torturing them. The sand was like a bed of coals and you had to jump up and run, like a rabbit making its escape.”
“No,” I said, “I’ve never been to Portugal.”
We were sitting together at a cafe in Midtown. This is the first time we met, or so I believed. She seemed to believe that we knew each other, that we were old lovers, and would not be convinced otherwise.
“And that wind,” she continued, “that desert wind coming up from the Sahara! A dry air, like air coming off dead bones, like air from a sarcophagus. Do you remember? At the beach watching a lone ice-cream seller make his way across the rocks, He was a dark, tanned, Portuguese man with a belly that stuck out beneath his short t-shirt, shouting ‘Helados! Helados!’”
“No!” I exclaimed, “I don’t remember any of this. We have never met. I refuse to play these games!” I got up and left her there.
This meeting had been setup by my friend Jules. Jules and I both worked at the same bank. He knew this girl and had insisted we should meet. From the moment I had sat down, she had been staring eagerly at me, her body poised as if ready to burst. Then came her revelations. She was amazed to see me again, she had said, as she thought I had been lost. Life was sometimes benevolent like this.
I ran back to my small flat on Prince Street and phoned Jules. He didn’t answer. I texted him and got no response. I was mystified but also furious at what that woman had said. I admit that I had lied to her: I had been to Portugal, just not with her.
I figured I’d see Jules the next morning. A few of us had agreed to meet near my place in SoHo for brunch. I didn’t sleep well that night. First, the sound of fire engines, their rapid whistling sound, approaching and then receding. I’d wake up briefly, the sounds splashing my ears, the humid night pushing me back into a fitful sleep. Then the shouts from the street of late-night drinkers, kicking garbage cans, shouting obscenities at the dark houses.
We met for brunch at the corner of West Broadway and Houston. Everyone was there. Alex with his pomaded hair and perfect posture, looking as if he had emerged from a silent film. Maxim, somehow always badly-shaven, his wide chest straining the otherwise perfect cut of his suit. Neil with his loud shirts and unkempt hair. Rob and Sam were on their way, they said. Most of us worked at the same bank. That is, except for Neil who somehow made his living through photography though I rarely saw him with a camera. Everyone was there, except for Jules.
Jules and I had known each other before New York, old college buddies. We had very little in common but that is perhaps why we were such great friends. We admired each other for having those qualities which we felt the other had and that we desired and lacked. I admired him for his directness, his self-confidence, his social instincts. He admired me, or so I believed, for my studiousness and deeper perceptions, for an ability to know when a situation had been exhausted and to be able to quietly, with dignity, make a departure.
“Does anyone know where Jules is?” I asked.
“Jules is still asleep, no doubt. He has reached the age where his ambitions exceed his abilities, in drink, in women.”, replied Neil, thinking himself to be witty.
“He set me up with a girl last night. I want to find out how he knows her.” I explained.
“So I am guessing it did not go well,” quipped Neil.
“He told me about it,” piped up Sam,”Her name was Amanda right? I think she is a friend of Victoria.”
I had never even asked her her name. I was too startled by her, too startled by her familiarity, by her accusations to even stay and ask her questions. I considered going to see Jules but he lived far uptown. I knew that Victoria, though, lived nearby, in the West Village.
“I have to go,” I excused myself. “I have to go take care of something urgent.”
“We will see you at the Bowery Bar tonight?” asked Alex as I was walking away. “Marc Baker, the party promoter, said he can get us all in.”
Victoria lived in a small studio on Christopher Street. I rang her and she asked me to come up. I had known Victoria almost as long as I had known Jules. She and Jules had been a couple once. Victoria was tall with hair so blond, it was almost green. It appeared as if she lacked eyebrows but if you looked closely you could see that they vanished against her pale skin. She liked to dress in long gowns and she was wearing one now, a light green dress, that together with her white skin and hair gave her the appearance of a ghost.
“Victoria,” I asked right away, “Who is Amanda?”
She didn’t reply but instead went into her kitchen. “Would you like some tea?” she yelled out.
She came back out again holding a teapot and carrying out cups and saucers as if we were at some English garden party.
“Have you seen Jules?” she asked.
“No. I tried calling him but there is no answer.”
“Jules has run away” she added. “I am sure he will return. His life is here in New York, after all. But he will be gone for months, I’d guess.”
“Victoria,” I insisted, “Who is Amanda?”
She again ignored my question.
“Do you remember, when the four of us, you, me, Jules and Lia all went together to Spain one summer?”
I merely nodded. This was not something I wanted to remember. I feared what she was about to say.
"We had all met in Barcelona", she continued, "and then made our way to Madrid. Lia was enchanted by old-world Madrid, its pomp and its regality. After an entire day of walking, we were all so exhausted, ready to collapse like puppets. But Lia wanted to see more and Jules, the gentleman, offered to take her to a club in La Chueca. You and I were too tired and went back to our hotel in Retiro. Do you remember?"
"Yes, I remember," I replied, "Lia didn't arrive until the morning, sweaty and exhausted but looking alive. I still remember her wide eyes, her bright teeth. She told me that the wild frenzy she had seen put New York City to shame. I tried to get her to sleep but she was restless with an energy I had never seen."
"When we finally left Madrid for Toledo," I added, "it was as if we had emerged from the wild of night into daylight."
"All those magnificent churches and synagogues in Toledo!," Victoria continued, "The summer was so hot, even for Spain, that the four of us were walking around almost naked. The only respite from the heat was to sit at an outdoor cafe with mist spraying on you, a cold fog against your skin to ward off the heat. Lia looked so beautiful in her tight white top that I was a bit envious. I recall that even Jules had remarked upon her beauty.
Did you know that Jules and I had decided to end it on that trip? To travel is to enter into another world, I suppose. Old limitations appear to vanish. It also acts as an intoxicant and, like other intoxicants, you might reveal your desires and your suppressed inhibitions. In that new world, your lover becomes either your muse or, in the worst case, an impediment. That was the last time the four of us were together. You and Lia were going off to Lisbon while Jules and I caught a flight home.”
Yes, we did go to Lisbon, to its rolling hills of cobbled streets. Lia almost fell twice while navigating the treacherous streets of Alfama in old Lisbon. We ate grilled sardines and danced to Pimba music. The potent Sun that presides over the deserts of Spain and Portugal is there, on the coast, fought by the ocean winds. The Sun still rules but the sea offers shelter to its victims.
“Does Lisbon have beaches?” Lia had asked.
Yes, baked stretches of sand and rock. The sunbathers, with their colorful beach umbrellas, all had deep, dark skin. It was impossible to know whether they had been born with skin this dark and bronzed or whether this was the result of years of defying the Portuguese sun.
It was there on the beach that she told me. I kissed her and we lay together, under our pink umbrella, embracing. Like two insects sleeping together inside a flower? Perhaps.
“What happened to Lia after that”, asked Victoria bringing me back from sunny Portugal to her dark studio in Manhattan.
“We just went our own way”, I explained. “It didn’t work out between us.”
“I see.”, said Victoria.
She was in the middle of pouring me my tea when she added: “I ran into Lia, here in Manhattan, a couple weeks ago.”
I had picked up my teacup but now my hand had started to tremble and I had to put it back down.
“Victoria,” I asked for the third time, ”Who is Amanda?’
“Oh, Amanda.” She responded. “She is a good friend of Lia’s. Lia put her up to it. You both deceived her and now she decided to deceive you.”
“This is ridiculous!” I burst out. “I won't put up with this!” I got up and started walking out the door.
“You know,” she called after me, “You and Jules are really very much alike!”
I felt that I was in a state of fever. I walked back and forth along the city streets, not knowing what to do now or where to go. Finally, I sat on the pavement, leaning against a building. This is what you do when you are drunk or homeless in this city, I thought. You collapse against the wall. Nobody looks at you for fear that you might ask them for help or for money.
I sat there for a while watching people. Each person looked as if they were on a serious errand, like a diplomatic mission. Even a mother with her children, shoving them all forward, her eyes darting everywhere, afraid of the streets, afraid of other people.
That night, I again dreamt fitfully. Neighbors slamming doors to announce their arrival in the middle of the night. A distant screaming baby. Sudden shouts in the street and the sound of someone pleading.
When I got up early that morning, I noticed that I had had a call in the middle of the night. My phone told me that Neil had called and he had left a message.
“Hey, are you there? I got a strange call from Jules last night. He didn’t sound well. He asked me to pass on a message to you. I don’t know why he didn’t call you directly. Anyways he said to tell you that it is going to be all right. That he was sorry. That’s all he said. That it is going to be all right and that he was sorry. I don't know what has come over him. Anyways, are you still coming out with us to dinner tomorrow night? Everyone will be there.”