There is something worse than not being able to pay a debt. It is not knowing to whom you owe the unpayable amount. There is even one steeper side of the problem: knowing that your debt is not about the vitriolic exchange of currencies but, instead, that one day you would be required to fully pay it in happiness. One more step into darkness will be not knowing when the faceless creditor will knock on your door. He could show up later today, he could be waiting for you right now two blocks away at your door, or he may not show up at all for the next twenty years. Perhaps he might not need to appear in front of your astonished eyes because the incarnation of your happiness, looking radiant and relieved, might have taken a plane one Saturday morning, like today, and left you anchored in the cobblestones of a road with a poetic name, Street of Paradise.
Before Victor turned his cigarette lighter for the twentieth time with a magical pass of his thumb and his big finger, Rosa Maria asked, “Are you already missing her?”
Victor always wondered if Rosa Maria hid a secret music sheet behind the dessert counter or among the firewood she used to grill the fish. Her voice was the only part of her being that did not declare exhaustion. She sang her words with the same young cadence at eight in the morning and ten at night when the last dishes were supposed to be served.
Victor turned his head and looked at her leaving the view of the Rua do Paraíso and his thoughts as if he were departing from the shore in a raft instead of sitting at one of the three tables in the antechamber of Rosa`s restaurant. His mouth was smarter than his brain and drew the iconic smile that had softened some hearts in the past, “Why do you ask? Is it that obvious, Rosa?”
“It’s not. But since I imagine you don’t know when she’ll be back, I better lecture you now and move on with the potatoes and the salad for number six.”
There were many more tables and much more space in the back of the restaurant. The narrow path that had been the entrance of the ancient house of Rosa’s great-aunt contained the three tables that only locals like Victor preferred, the counter where the construction workers had their middle morning coffee, and the open kitchen where Rosa Maria and, only in the weekends, her assistant Sarais cooked the simple dishes that had given them a reputation. The fame of the Parreirinha do Paraíso was spreading its wings too far thanks to technological innovations that Rosa could not grasp. In the back, behind a row of shelves full of white and blue samples of Portuguese pottery, there was a big room where the tourists broke Rosa’s language, trying to pronounce with the stony consonants of English and German the rounded syllables of a traditional menu that would never be translated.
“You are right. I don’t know when she will be back. She may decide to stay there.”
“In a place where it snows eight months of the year and they don’t speak Portuguese?”
Victor felt the sting of lacking nicotine. He was sure that Rosa would allow him to light one of his Gitanes in the restaurant. Rosa had the old-fashioned manners of letting people live and ruin their lives as they pleased as long as they did not interfere with her cooking and the order of her utensils. But the patrons and Sarais would look at him with contempt and he’d had enough of that self-inflicted feeling since he had left Anna at the airport hours ago.
“She speaks Portuguese there, too, with her friends and the university people. Remember I told you that she’s writing a book?”
“Yes, you did. About the writer with the hat sitting in front of the café A Brasileira? What was his name?”
“Pessoa, Fernando Pessoa. You should know about him better than I do. Imagine that I didn’t know about Hugo or Balzac or Baudelaire. Those are my writers. Pessoa is yours.”
“Victor, you may be very interested in those intelligent people matters, but you cannot make a cod with potatoes and olive oil as I do. Your brain can be either full or empty but your stomach beats it. No cod down there, no ideas up your head. Pessoa, Pessoa, and all those guys you named wouldn’t have written a letter without women like me spooning food around them. Sarais! Take this to number four!”
“You’re right, Rosa. You are much wiser than all of them.” Victor’s smile remained for a couple of seconds while his eyes went from Rosa on the other side of the counter, to his blue package of cigarettes and then to the street. “Bring me the check, whenever you can. And don’t forget to add the coffee.”
Rosa dried her hands on her stained apron and turned from the oven to the antique register machine that at the present only served as a decoration. Inside, she had small blocks of old blank receipts that she used with those clients that spoke her language well and returned with regularity. She scribbled what Victor had consumed minus the coffee and the slice of apple tart that she put on top of the improvised check when she brought it to the table. Her limp was more noticeable than a week ago.
“You won’t trick me with that fake smile, mister. You need something sweet to fight the bitterness of her absence and the smoke that will fill your mouth the moment you step on that street. And don’t give me orders about what to charge to my clients or from now on you will have to eat in the Chiado, with the statue of the writer, if the tourists let you.”
Victor put an unlit cigarette in his mouth, counted the bills, and added a two-euro coin for Sarais. At the door, he stood against the breeze to light at last the filtered object of his desire. He walked slowly, squinting his green eyes in a defense gesture from the smoke and his thoughts. He crossed the Calçaca do Forte without looking at the building to which he will have to return alone for a long indefinite time. He kept walking straight until the Rua dos Remedios spilled itself into Rua do Vigário. Victor found his bench. Their bench. The¬¬ one that Anna and he had appropriated. He sat ceremoniously to consider the Saturday afternoon in front of him and the void of days without Anna that waited with tenebrous arms. He looked up at the yellow building across the street and tried to guess again, for a thousandth time, what the life beating behind all those green windows would be like. It was not as easy without Anna; nothing would be easy without her.
When the old black dog sat out on the balcony of the second floor and looked back at him, Victor reached for his cigarette lighter in the outside pocket of his backpack. Rosa’s handwritten check came out with it. Suddenly, in front of the undaunted eyes of the dog, he could not help the impulse to burn the piece of paper. And he did, slowly, savoring the bluish flames. Wishing it would be as easy to burn the link that propelled Anna’s heart and body to be close to the eternal, unknown creditor of Victor’s happiness and far from this sad French man who really loved her. Victor would have burned years of future peace, even all his future melting smiles, to pay off such an onerous bill.
Fabiana Elisa Martínez authored the short story collections, 12 Random Words and Conquered by Fog, and the grammar Spanish 360 with Fabiana. Other stories of hers were published in Rigorous Magazine, The Closed Eye Open, Ponder Review, The Halcyone, Hindsight Magazine, Libretto Magazine, and the anthology, Writers of Tomorrow.