domingo, 1 de marzo de 2020


"Sister Zero"
FROM NOTEBOOK #3
PART III

The first time I entered St. Francis, I was in a daze. The convent was unsurprisingly spare, but welcoming. There was a bit of an improvised gift shop where chocolate truffles slowly melted on the shelves, and an equally haphazard “front desk”. Past a heavy door, which swung on its hinges instead of locking, were the living quarters, and the rest of the building.

It took a lot of convincing for me to allow Tomasa and Giovanna to bring me there, as the proposal seemed ridiculous and embarrassing to me. They had asked a number of times in the past and every time I had politely turned them down with reasonable excuses. As a lapsed Catholic, I had my reservations about the clergy and their constant attempts at conversion. My friends, who had gone to religious schools where nuns and priests governed, had few good things to say about them; about their rigid vigilance, their glowering menace. I could never have considered the nuns my “friends” because our lives and backgrounds were so dramatically different, that I knew our relationship would never develop beyond the very specific circumstances that lead us to meet in that summer. I mentally categorized them as part of a group of kooky acquaintances, which I was secretly kind of proud of having, but would be embarrassed to reveal to others.

But it was Friday, and we were allowed to leave the office early. I could have darted straight home, made plans for the beach, but instead I absentmindedly wandered into the old mall again, telling myself I was going to check out this thing or another. It was hard for me to admit that I wanted to see them, the two people with whom I had built a genuine rapport over the last couple months. I told myself those weren’t my intentions, but it was blindingly obvious.

And conveniently enough, there they were, fanning themselves with the lids of open chocolate boxes, readjusting their coarse and boxy habits, which I could only imagine wearing in such heat. We immediately struck up a conversation with a rehearsed kind of joviality that was so pleasant to me at the time. Tati, if there’s something to be said about nuns it’s that they know how to make people feel welcome without ever overdoing it. This little space felt so refreshing when compared to the air-conditioned nightmare of the firm. We got to talking as usual and, without realizing, I mentioned that I was free for the afternoon. The nuns were delighted, and insisted that I come with them to the convent for tea. At this point I was feeling the kind of weird, warm tingles that sometimes slide down your back when you go to the hairdresser, or when a soft-spoken receptionist tends to your needs. That kind of hypnotic warmth that I associate with, I guess, service and comfort. And it almost made me want to cry. I said yes.

Whether the nuns’ intentions were purely altruistic or whether there was a conversion motive, I don’t know. Maybe they saw potential in me to be like them. Who even becomes a nun in this day and age? I have to assume they’re low on numbers. But I didn’t care about any of this at the time. As soon as I accepted, Tomasa and Giovanna burst into a thrilled chit-chat and beamed with what seemed like genuine joy, as they probably hadn’t entertained a guest in a while. They seemed to be amused by how the sisters would react to their guest, and began to work out the logistics of the operation. I don’t know much about convents, but I’m sure nuns aren’t allowed to simply bring in people off the street. At the same time, it didn’t seem like they were doing this in secret.


It’s not surprising that there was no air conditioning at St. Francis, or any similar amenities. Despite the background hum of comings and goings, errands and small talk, beyond the storefront was a place of monastic contemplation. I think the heat started to get to me at that point. I began to feel childlike, impressionable, far too easy to guide. Tomasa and Giovanna lead me through a back door that opened into a wonderful little corner of the convent’s inner patio, a sunlit place with little more than an iron-legged marble table and a few, thin chairs. The arrangement looked like it had stood there, unperturbed, for a thousand years. It sat in the middle of a walled little corner of the patio that was separated from the main square by a tight hallway, as if built in secret. The side and back walls were covered in greenery that was soothing to just look at. In a moment I became aware that his was, without a doubt, Tomasa and Giovanna’s secret corner, a place where they came to find some privacy, to tend to the plants, to drink tea and eat cake and gossip about the other sisters. I feel weirdly humbled to have been let in. I heard the moving-around of furniture behind me and then the door closed, and immediately I began to hear baby wrens, chirping in the distance. I no longer felt like I was in the city. And I began to relax, to let go in ways I hadn’t allowed myself to do for months.

viernes, 14 de febrero de 2020

"Sister Zero"
FROM NOTEBOOK #3
PART II

I had originally intended to spend six months or so in Marianne's firm while I got my certificates and diplomas in line at university. But I hated university, and kept putting it off. It's easier to justify it to yourself when you're working and always exhausted. The idea of doing something productive with the meager free time you're given seems unfeasible and frankly kind of insulting. Nobody wants to write application letters where they grovel before idiotic bureaucrats and sycophantic secretaries, especially not after spending eight-to-ten hours licking the boots of incompetent bosses who owe their position to their illustrious father or uncle. Besides, that summer was miserable: ruthless and sweltering, the first summer I had to spend in pencil skirts and thick, hand-me-down blouses. They worked us from sunrise to sunset. I have a bad habit of simply accepting horrible situations and not speaking out after a while. This was one of them.

Whenever I ran into acquaintances while doing errands or grabbing lunch--especially when I ran into high school classmates--I felt rattled, almost disturbed. Partly because of the ways in which we had changed, but also because school and everything about it now seemed like a mildly twisted dream. The vast and unknowable world of my teens had shrunk into a roughly three-kilometer urban expanse, wherein I knew every corner shop, ATM, and condemned building by heart. Not only had the mystery vanished, but something about working life seemed truly hopeless at the time. To be reminded that things used to be different was disheartening. And I guess that's why I distanced myself from the group after graduation. I told myself that it was the adult thing to do, that only sad people cling to high school memories forever, and that it was high time I got over all the Weird Shit, anyway. Such a dumb thing. All those make-believe adventures, which, even today, I'm a bit embarrassed to recall. But as a consequence of this mindset I became crushingly, comically lonely.

And so I began to spend more and more lunch breaks with Tomasa and Giovanna. It was always casual and almost incidental in my mind. A normal person would've taken advantage of their internship to network with their peers and prove their worth to their superiors, but just the thought of it made me break out in hives. I would much rather wander the halls of a semi-abandoned shopping mall, eating tasteless and questionable salads from a Styrofoam box. At least I was alone with my thoughts. And in this way, my encounters with the nuns occurred naturally. There was nowhere else nearby to hide from the sun during the deadly period between noon and early dusk, when just walking outside felt like being cooked.

Most middle-aged women eventually develop the tendency to divulge their life stories in bite-sized vignettes, and the nuns were no different. I learned that Tomasa grew up poor in the north, but had an honest and happy childhood of chasing after wild fowl, bathing in riverbanks, and crowding around black-and-white television sets with her cousins. Giovanna was quite the opposite: she had been a young promise of her school's soft tennis club, she was very careful not to divulge embarrassing or comical childhood stories, and everything about her suggested that she was highly-bred. Well, not really. I didn't believe most of what she said. For the most part it seemed like she was embarrassed of having a perfectly-normal upbringing and felt the need to put on airs around me. Perhaps she thought I was "that kind of person", simply because I worked with lawyers and executives and politicians' wives. Sometimes I thought I was "that kind of person" as well, but thankfully I snapped out of it after a few months.

It was a strange dynamic between the three of us. It took a while for me to lower my guard and no longer keep an ironic distance between myself and the nuns. It was Tomasa's unbeatable enthusiasm that drew us closer together. Giovanna was reticent to make any personal statements, or move beyond polite conversation. (For her, polite conversation included the weather, non-political current events, and Scripture, the last of which usually drove our talks to a dead end.) We were such an unlikely group, and to be honest, I would have been mortified to have been caught laughing it up with them by a coworker or boss. (Nobody asked where I went for lunch; at this point everyone had correctly assumed that I despised them.) But we grew closer in spite of it all. Eventually they started to bring chocolate truffles especially for me, and I started complaining to them about my cubicle-mates. I found myself unraveling before them sometimes, going on tangents about the uselessness of higher education, the hypocrisy of office hierarchies, the fact that my job didn't seem to exist for any real purpose. In hindsight I can only assume that, gradually, I began to look a little lost to them. Possibly in need of course-correction. Nuns tend to see people that way. It's no surprise that, eventually, they began to find excuses to invite me into the convent. It was right there, after all.

domingo, 19 de marzo de 2017

"Sister Zero"
FROM NOTEBOOK #3
PART I


Tati, this is the only interesting thing that came of the six months I spent working as a temp in Marianne's firm.

It was a horrible, lonely job, though I was physically close to others for the entire time. I was squeezed into a hallway lined with outdated computers and sentenced to draft inane e-mails alongside nine other interns. I was one of two girls in this group. The other girl was strange, not in an attractive way, she just came off as mentally unbalanced. For some reason she was really obsessed with traveling to Israel. Whatever.

Most of my fellow interns took this job seriously and answered directly to a number of important men. It was amazing how their tone would shift between gross, sexual jokes and shameless dick-sucking. At the end of the hall there was a telephone from the eighties so that anyone who wanted something from us--usually a whim--could tell us. Twice a day I would take the elevator down to the courtyard and smoke a cigarette, vacantly staring. Usually when I returned, someone would be considerate enough to tell me that the boss had called for me.

I didn't even try to be friendly in Marianne's firm; I wasn't going to last there and I knew it, and so did they. Many thought I was a lesbian, because I showed no interest in the boys. One of them was more sensitive and, let's say, "trying to be alternative," and I think he wanted to establish a friendship. But every moment spent there was hell, Tati. I wasn't in the mood to be nice to anyone.

At 1:00 p.m. sharp I was gone. We had an hour-and-a-half lunch break. The building is located in the financial district, in fact just two blocks away from Central Finance. Most of the other interns would take this time to get sushi or haircuts in the nearby Swissotel. I was spending three-fourths of my meager salary on gas to get to work in the first place, and the other fourth on video games. I ate in the Mall.

When I talk about the Mall I talk about the Mall back in 1998. Two years later that Mall was demolished, and replaced with the one we know now. The old Mall was a curiosity. Despite the great location, it never really worked out, I think because of some issue in the lease contracts for stores. Most of them closed down. In the end you had a four-story labyrinth where the vast majority of stores was shuttered. Open locales were not inspiring: old toy shops, geriatic wear, a pharmacy, "The World of Towels." Like B. would say, you could smell the money being laundered through them.

But that's not all. The Mall was a place worth exploring. The ground floor had two basements under it, and the deeper you went, the more eerie it became. Electric stairways remained frozen, lights flickered or didn't work at all, and the décor retrated further back into the past. The bottom floor contained nothing but a mural that looked like it was painted in the sixties (with images of Bengal tigers and multi-racial hand-holding), and an exit to the park that passes by an ATM. This was where I met the Sisters, and I felt so lucky.

Tati, can you imagine meeting two nuns in the bottom floor of an abandoned mall? And on top of that, they were standing under a fluorescent light. I felt like I was in a video game, I had just come to a new town, and these two characters were going to tell me where to go next. It's obvious that I felt lost and desperate in those days. I sat eating a slippery microwave-cooked lunch, alone, mostly in the dark. To me this was a blessing, even though I've never been religiously-inclined.

I would come to know the Sisters as Tomasa (the plump, husky, black one) and Giovanna (the tall, bird-like, white one). They were the kind of pair you would see on a newspaper comic strip, with such exaggerated features and contrasting personalities. We made smalltalk almost immediately; they looked as relieved to find me as I was to find them.

The conversation was stilted at first, but they were happy to talk. I told them that I worked nearby and they told me that they sold truffles. I think it's typical for convents to bake and sell goods, as I remember Mom would buy chocolates from a group of nuns when I was a kid. They went around the neighborhood offering boxes and took a moment to rest from the heat in the Mall. My comments and replies were very banal. "I couldn't imagine walking around in the heat like that." But somehow the conversation was always refreshing. They did most of the work; I just sat there nodding.

(Tati, the truffles they sold were delicious. I'm sorry I never brought you any, but you might still forgive me if you keep reading.)

This went on for several days, on and off, over a couple weeks. On days when I didn't run into the Sisters I usually ended up eating lunch alone. A couple times I went to Stephany's apartment. She was living alone at that point, her parents were abroad. But we were never really that close, so I mostly smoked cigarettes on her balcony until it was time to go. I remember being so jealous that she was living alone, in an apartment, in the nicest part of town. Six years later I found myself in the same situation and I was miserable! This sounds like a stupid "ironic" thing that a stupid girl would post on Facebook.

Anyway, back to the story. With each of these encounters I grew closer to the Sisters, and I discovered more about them. They were from St. Francis, which was really obvious when I think about it. St. Francis is the convent located next to St. Francis' church. And St. Francis' church is right in front of the Mall. Not many people know that there is also a convent there; it's a very low-profile building, it looks kind of like the administrative offices of the church. Both Sisters looked about middle-aged; Tomasa possibly older. Tomasa was loud and loved to guffaw; she was jovial and gossipy. Giovanna was more proper. It seemed like sometimes her partner's behavior irked her, but it was never apparent.

Giovanna also talked a lot about punishment. She was very much from the old school of nunship, I think. Being married to Jesus was not just devotion and silence, it was also active suffering. And it was clear that she didn't think of me or anyone else as pure. She would sometimes go on tangents about blood and epiphanies. Usually Tomasa and I glossed over them and changed the subject. But she was always courteous and smiling. I regarded her more like a kooky aunt than a person to be feared. They always seemed like ultimately likable women.

jueves, 27 de octubre de 2016

"He's Not Setting Out to Hurt People"
FROM NOTEBOOK #4
PART III

This story takes place at a vague point between Monica and Xochipilli. Surely you are familiar with those terms by now. B. must have told you everything about his childhood.

In those times summers were longer and we were all in grade school. You and I, now that I think about it, were not even friends; you orbited around B. and I orbited around A., and when those two became best friends, that was how we met. So I guess it makes sense that I wouldn't have known of this until now.

B.'s parents were not financially stable, and there were a couple times when they almost had to pull him out of school. His Dad was a journalist and I think his Mom had to go back to teaching a few times to make ends meet. For a few months they had a plastic table in the kitchen. B. never had video game consoles or BMX bicycles. He sold weed to afford records. (Remember the Coat of Many Pockets?) He shared a room with his little brother right up until he moved out of the house. Really, if he hadn't lucked out with that job offer straight out of university, things surely would have been difficult for me.

When I was a kid I didn't notice these things, or at least I didn't really let myself think about them, but with time I began to feel guilt over the stark differences of our economic situations. But this isn't about me, anyway.

B.'s Dad was a member of the Clan from the start. I understand that the Clan didn't really take off locally until the mid-eighties, when there was an influx of important people who joined. I understand it was mostly an expat thing until then. Apparently B.'s family is one of those formerly aristocratic clans that lost nearly everything in the sixties, except for their high-class contacts. We always knew that B.'s surname sounded important anyway, so it's no surprise. I suppose that is why his Dad was invited; back then it was very exclusive.

jueves, 13 de octubre de 2016

"He's Not Setting Out to Hurt People"
FROM NOTEBOOK #4
PART II

Back then I knew that I needed help, and you did as well. We had both become so empty that people didn't recognize us anymore. My dad never showed concern, but your parents did. Back when we were in school I would often have dinner at your house and we would have lively conversations about the war on the news. But in those later, pathetic years, your parents only rang me up to try and find out what was wrong with you. They weren't aware that by then we almost weren't speaking. But standing on the yard of my house on a sunlight morning, curling the phone cord around my hand, talking to your mom about when we were kids, was a blessing anyway, even though she sounded so sad.

I don't know what happened to us. All our forward momentum evaporated the second our graduation ceremony ended. Once you told me that it had been the night at the hotel that did it, that it had been too much for us. And maybe it contributed, but I think it goes beyond that. We had so much going for us and so many people cheering us on back in school. I was going to be a painter and a writer and a sculptor, you were going to be an athlete and a dancer and a chemist. And I don't even understand where the next seven years went. Apparently they slipped past me while I was sitting on the lawn chair outside, throwing cigarette butts into the empty pool. I remember specific events of nights out drinking, parties we regretted going to, people we dated, excursions, lazy afternoons with the group, but on a macro level, I have no idea of what I was doing. I was too crushed to consider it.

I'm sorry for meandering. It was back in this winter when I was useless and B. had more or less become my caregiver, that we shared all our deeper anxieties about the future. As was the case for everyone in our group, we were secretly unsure of everything; our talents, interests, decisions, priorities, affections. Later on it became apparent that every one of us regretted whatever we had studied in university, but at that time it was just B. and I, commiserating.

We would talk about a lot of things on the hood of his car on those afternoons, and we would talk about Weird Shit as well. The term seemed so childish at that point, something we had come up with as teenagers and kept going far past its sell-by date. We talked about Monica and Sister Zero, about all the record stores. It was our way of disarming the strangeness of their existence and distancing them from our lives. If you will recall, nothing out of the ordinary had happened to us for the better part of a year. It had become apparent, at least to me, that things didn't simply happen to us; we sought them out for entertainment, and the moment we stopped being interested, they disintegrated from life and memory. All that remained were specters of shared childhood dreams. They no longer seemed even real. And we talked them all away, explained them rationally in dozens of different ways. Whenever our individual versions of the same story differed, we took it as proof that the whole thing was a fabrication.

One Wednesday we had skipped our last classes of the afternoon and headed straight for the bodega to drink, and we were probably four bottles deep when our conversation began to extend beyond its natural point, the point where we would normally head home. We had started early and were going on late, the streetlights were already on, and the place was empty except for us. Having no more customers, Omar had headed to the backroom to watch TV with his girlfriend. We were sitting at the white plastic table right at the entrance with a stray cat for company. The soda cooler was buzzing in the background, and that was it. It was perfect.

I knew that something was going to happen because B. had gone silent in a way that was unusual for him. Considering that B. is a man with a severely limited expressive range, you learn to read even the most minor facial cues for indications. And I could read the doubt that comes with struggling to spit something out, something that you have already decided that you will say, but is so deeply buried and unthinkable that physically formulating the worlds feels like trying to remember a language you haven't spoken in decades. It took him a while, but he did it.

miércoles, 12 de octubre de 2016


"He's Not Setting Out to Hurt People"
FROM NOTEBOOK #4
PART I
T.,

Sometimes I would rise at 3:00 a.m. and slowly pour myself a long glass of water, feeling the absence of others in every room of the house, savoring the creaks of the stairwell, breathing the dust, and I would see my face reflected on the panes of the kitchen drawers as I poured myself the glass, and I would ask to the silence, Who are you?

Sometimes I would be driving home from campus in the beat-up, discount Volvo and there would be a long-counting red streetlight where I wanted there to be none, and in those one hundred and twenty-or-so seconds sitting in traffic I would go over the events of the day, the minutiae and the banal commentary, and I would find myself gripping the steering wheel as if I were afraid it's made of gas and my hands were going to pass straight through it, like an illusion, and I would concentrate on this, on feeling an object occupy physical space, as a manner of reassurance. Years later I would realize that a rather deep and sharp dent on the northeastern side of the wheel was the place where I always dug in with the nail of my thumb in these times.

Sometimes I would finally feel consumed, as if the world could no longer gnaw at anything because there wasn't anything left, and in these times especially smoking gave me headaches and all my limbs felt sore, and I would sleep for ten or twelve hours at a time, starting in the early afternoon and rising, completely disoriented, at around midnight, only to undress and turn off the record player and go back to bed.

This was the worst winter of my life and B. knew it well. Whenever I had the energy we would drive aimlessly through the neighborhoods around campus and stop for cigarettes and beers, walking around in the magic hour, when sunlight is distilled and rushes between buildings, through clotheslines, permeating cars and apartments.

That was a relatively light time for B., whose taste in music had softened. He was listening to the Cocteau Twins and Mazzy Star, appropriate for our five-to-seven drives around the district. He was coasting on easy courses and going to concerts and seeing new people while I was completely withdrawn. The most active thing we did together was drive or play cards. I barely had the energy for conversation, which meant that few people could tolerate me aside from B. That was shortly after my fight with A. and my distancing from E., so we weren't going out much as a group. I remember B. tried to rope you into our excursions, but you were too busy pretending to be interested in your career.

You were too busy pretending to be interested in your career.

martes, 25 de septiembre de 2012

Short Exchange with A. at the Harbor


The man referred to as A. in the notebooks is now thirty-one years old. I couldn't find much from investigating him. He went to the same primary and secondary school as my brother, but was expelled in 1997 and graduated in 1999 from a different institution. He passed the entrance exam for a local university and studied Industrial Engineering. Apparently he won three Regional Vale Tudo Championships in a row, on 1998, 1999 and 2000. Currently he works as a supervisor in the cargo company owned by his father. He has not married.

It wasn't hard to find A. at the harbor in the summer morning. He looks very much like he did as a teenager, but his hair is much shorter, and he has that tiredness that comes with adulthood. A black mark that appears to be part of a large tattoo peeks out from under the collar of his shirt.

I introduced myself as B.'s younger brother and he almost immediately recognized me after that. There was some effusive hugging and exclamations and asking me about my family and my studies. Then there was a lull as A. recalled my brother and momentarily stared off into the sea, from where a heavy mist was rolling in. I said that I wanted to ask him some questions for a family project that I was putting together for Art class. It seemed like a flimsy excuse as I said it but A. seemed to buy it.

We sat down at one of the many tiny seaside cafés; A. loosened his tie and crossed his arms, leaning back against the chair. A strident group of seagulls were feasting on a discarded fish only  a few feet from us. I remembered that he had been a man of few words in his teens, but the years seemed to have mellowed him out.

The interview was very informative right up until the end.

You knew my brother for most of his life, right?

Yes... we became friends in the first or second grade, and we remained friends through high school and university. We couldn't see each other as often after graduation, but sometimes we managed.

I know this is kind of awkward, but, what do you think made you and my brother so close?

We... We had the same sense of humor, I guess... We were part of a bigger group, which was better.

What bigger group?

Well, you probably remember us visiting your brother as a big group when you were a boy. We were always hanging out with T., F., E...

I remember all of those people.

T. and F. also went to university with us. The four of us would get together sometimes after graduating. We all studied different things, of course, so we graduated at different times.

Do you know anything about T. and F. as of late?

I know that T. is in New York City. After she dropped out of Law, her parents sent her to a design institution abroad, and I think she was immediately hired by a New York design firm after graduation.

I don't know much about F... In 2006 he headed off to Honduras to live there and do social work for a while. I would get monthly letters from him, real letters, in the mail. Then he went to Africa to take some photographs for a magazine, or so I heard from his father. I actually had a business meeting with his father a week ago. He owns half the place, after all.

What about E.?

E. actually moved to Europe on the last year of secondary school... Nobody heard much from her again. I think T. got a couple emails from her and that was it.

E. was the girl that F. had a crush on for a while, right?

[Laughter] Yes... I can't believe you remember that.

I'm trying to remember another person who used to hang out with you... I think his name started with an N?

Oh... Yes, that was N. He was sort of friends with us over the last two years of secondary school, but I didn't see much of him because by then I'd been expelled.

Uh... Why did you get expelled again?

[Laughter] Fighting.

So... What's N. doing these days? Do you know?

[Clears throat] He died, in 2006. In the Nantes marketplace fire.

I see... Was there anyone else in your group?

That was most of it... D. was around sometimes, you probably remember her, with the red hair. I don't think you got to meet K...

I think I did.

Really? K. was a very odd person... She didn't go out that much. I think that was the whole group...

Wait, was K. the girl who almost blew up the school's boiler room? They still talked about that when I was in secondary.

[Laughter] Yes, that was her. I'm pretty sure it was a miscalculation on her part.

What are they doing?

Nothing much... D. went back to live with her family in the U.K. after she finished school, and K. sort of dropped off the radar... I think she might still live here, though.

I also remember another guy, though... He was kind of... Crazy-looking, I guess. I can't remember his name...

Who? [Long pause] What are you really here for?

I wanted to confirm memories I have of my brother and his friends... I've been having some dreams about it lately, sort of half-remembered childhood moments.

[Pause] I think your brother was friends with a guy from school who got into trouble many times... I think he passed away at some point.

Do you remember his name?

Not really.

So... what did you do, as a group, usually?

Well, the usual teenage things...

Any record stores?

[Pause] Not record stores, I don't think so. Why do you ask?

No reason. Well, I guess that's all... [click]

[end of interview]

I don't have very much to say. A. became visibly defensive and clammed up towards the end of the interview. I wonder if he knew that I had found the notebooks.

Maybe the whole thing really was fiction, and A. was simply embarrassed that I'd found their collaborative creative writing project or something...

Or otherwise he didn't want to reveal the identity of X to me, for some reason.

Other than possibly K., it seems that A. is the only member of the group who is still alive and living in this city. Contacting anyone else will be more difficult.

December 15, 2011