‘Hi… may I sit here?’
I said yes and removed my bag from the chair in front of me. I usually carry a book and a notebook wherever I go, always with a bag like a professor, although I don’t think I would have the patience for teaching.
She had a cappuccino with more cinnamon on the top than I would normally put if it was mine. Her movements were smooth, calm. Her face however had an expression that I couldn’t define. Maybe apprehension or sadness but mixed with the tranquility of those that possess no more anguish or despair.
I stayed as I was, seated, waiting for her to arrange herself. Now I couldn’t observe the place anymore; it would seem weird to do that while someone sited opposite to me. I decided to write something, or at least pretend to, since the notebook was already open. It resulted in loose words, still without connection.
She was carrying many items: a book which title I couldn’t see with a marker in the middle, a thin wine colored scarf around her neck, a big brown leather purse and her cell phone. I do not know how she managed to balance all her stuff, and she did it a little clumsily, but it seemed to be a frequent confusion. She wore dark pants, white shirt and an open gray jacket, square rim eyeglasses, her hair as messy as the whole picture. She looked about thirty and passed the impression that she was always late for some appointment, even on a Saturday morning.
‘Julia, nice to meet you. What’s your name again?’ She took off the jacket, put it over the chair’s back, hanged her purse there as well and kept the scarf on her neck. She took a deep breath, almost like a long sigh, when she was finally organized.
‘Pedro. Nice to meet you too.’
The way this stranger moved was a contrast to my immobility, quiet, wasting time with other people’s lives, observing them at the coffee shop. Suddenly I felt old. Those elderly men playing chess and checkers at the neighborhood’s squares, and bored old ladies taking a morning sun bath on their wheelchairs led by caretakers came to my mind. These thoughts made me uncomfortable — more those about the ladies than the ones regarding the men, always excitedly shouting at each other while playing board games or heavily concentrated with the strategies of chess. I knew I was exaggerating, of course, as I was ten years older than Julia, at most. I straightened up my posture as someone younger and felt sorry for myself.
The coffee shop is not my office. I come here in the weekends; when the job at the real office, 40 plain hours per week, sets me free. The place is small, cozy as every shop in the area. It was established more than 20 years ago and has a few employees, mostly with several years working here. I don´t know all of them, but sometimes I engage in those small conversations with a few, in order to pass time. I come for the coffee, espresso or double, depending if I had a heavy week or just want to release the stress. Today is a day for an espresso, even though I have nothing to do later.
‘Can we talk a little?’ She asked a bit shyly, looking at first to the large cup of coffee in front of her, foam milk tainted with brown still intact, then directly into my eyes, making me blush and look away.
A friend told me once that in Chile, when a man invites a woman to dance, he has to stare at her directly in the eye waiting for her to do the same. Then he will look away, the beginning of a seductive game. ‘There, men can’t hold their look toward women’, she said, they are a little insecure and timid.
‘It would be my pleasure, but…’ And as I was going to ask if there was a particular subject in her mind, I was interrupted again.
‘I know you are always around, having coffee and observing people’s lives, what they are doing… I do that too from time to time, but today I have a story to tell… That is why you come here, right? To listen and witness stories?’
Her tone was imperative, direct. She communicated with her eyes, assertive and soft at the same time, giving me no choice but to accept whatever she was telling me, although I was being led voluntarily.
Her accent was nuanced, but noticeable. It did not remit to the stereotypical thick intonation of the northeast, but the strokes on her speech pattern were very different than mine, carioca — born and raised.
‘Usually I see rather than hear; and when I do talk to people, is with the ones that work here.’ I pointed to the counter with a few seats. ‘And it is always about the same issues, politics, news, daily routine.’
‘Can I offer you a different routine? Like a bonus… one of those extras that came on boxes of dvd films.’
‘Sure, I would be very pleased, if you feel like sharing.’ I smiled, but also realized that it could be a bad idea, a torture if she was not a good storyteller. Nonetheless, I was intrigued, had nothing going on in my own life those days. Plus, I had time.
‘Today is my last day in Rio.’ She started with this bomb, while she put her book — which title’s I was never able to see — in her purse, kept the cell phone on the table, the screen facing down as if she needed to be connected even if didn’t want to be disturbed. ‘Tomorrow morning I fly to Iceland. I am moving there.’
I knew almost nothing about Iceland only that it was one of the best places to live in the world; they have amazing universities and education was tuition free. I knew that it is a peaceful country, opposite of what we have here in Brazil. Nevertheless I was surprised. I was expecting something standard like Barcelona, Paris, London, Berlin.
‘There is a house, a Ph. D, a peaceful life in Iceland waiting for me.’ Julia said more like she was justifying it to herself, almost if I was not there — as if she did that often, in front of a mirror.
‘There is the gender issue. Iceland is the less sexist place on earth.’ I regretted for that sentence as soon as it came out of my mouth. I felt ridiculous, quoting a statistic that probably she already knew. ‘Sorry, continue.’
‘I know; this is one of the reasons why I am going. I want to see how it is to live in a place like that. But I didn’t come to talk to you about Iceland. You can write it down if you want to.’ She said when she saw me scribbling the country’s name on my notebook.
‘There is no need, I just thought about your interesting choice of place to live.’ I said, closing the notebook leaving the pen inside it marking the page.
Julia laid back in the chair starting to feel at home. She moved the spoon around the cinnamon, dissolving it in the milk, letting it get cold enough not to burn her lips.
‘It took a while for me to enjoy living here.’ She said slowly. ‘This city is not for amateurs.’
Now she had me. I was used to hear declarations of love, poems, people screaming about how beautiful the city was, land of party, beer, sun and carnival. It felt refreshing and intelligent to hear something different in this already unusual cold and rainy weekend. She knew I was born here. I knew she was not.
‘Do you always drink cappuccinos?’
‘Actually no, I always have black coffee, but today I felt like having a cappuccino… I love the taste of cinnamon in the coffee and milk blend.’
‘I prefer black coffee as well and they have a very good one here. But tell me, why did you choose to live in Rio de Janeiro?’ I raised my hand to call Marcela, the waitress, for another espresso and a bottle of sparkling water. ‘I will ask for another coffee, do you want something?’
‘Cookies, if they have them, thanks. Rio de Janeiro was a suggestion; a teacher at the university told me they had a good master’s programme here, so I came. I had never been in the city before; I came for good with one bag of shoes, another for clothes, a backpack with some books. Now, as I am packing to leave the city, I noticed that I have a few shoes and a huge bookshelf. It was a hard and painful separation, I have to tell you.’ She laughed. ‘I gave a lot of books to my friends and had to send a few boxes to my parents’ house in Salvador. You know, you can’t get rid of all your books. They become your family; they are part of who you are!’ And laughed again. I knew it, of course.
I asked Marcela for cookies, coffee and water. She left and Julia stood in silence, while waiting for the waitress to come back. It did not take long, Marcela brought all at once; maybe she wanted to know what we were talking about — it was the first time she saw someone sitting with me. She smiled at me in complicity and I could see in her eyes the curiosity shining. I smiled back at her as if I was saying, go to work. Marcela left and kept her eyes on us. She seemed happy with the presence of that girl near me.
Weeks later I would find out more about that day. Marcela would call me on the corner of the counter and would say that she met Julia before and thought that the girl was also more alone than someone should be. More alone that someone should be — was the phrase that I kept in mind; the same way a psychoanalyst does when closes the session abruptly. I was glad to see in Marcela a fine observer with the sagacity and celerity of a young spirit — she was in fact younger than me — but with my new perspective on her thoughts, I discovered someone who was also able to appreciate calm and peace, so one can see the other in silence and detail.
Julia told me she was walking around, to what she called special places in town, but she knew it was not possible to go to all of them. She was like me, addicted to coffee, living nearby and a frequent costumer of the coffee shop, a place like any other of its kind. Although this one had a charisma, she would say. She was living in Rio for eight years and she had not expected to stay here more than two. Julia did not see the city as a place to spend the whole life, start a family. No, she liked, she admitted, but something inside her always said that it was not here, that Rio was not her city.
Now, neither was Salvador. She always pictured herself living there, two or three kids, two dogs in a house, never an apartment, but she never knew when it was going to happen. Salvador was as a nice city with great people, but the place had a problem that she could not comprehend: it stopped growing. There was never a good job opportunity, especially in her working field. But that future could wait another couple of years. Her family, her parents and her sister would be hers anywhere in the world and they would be together forever. Salvador could wait.
Julia was aware of the contrast she was facing; living transitorily in one place and the idea of starting a family in another. During all of those years she called both Salvador and Rio ‘home’ without fully agreeing to any of them. She had this need to say it to believe in it, even if she knew deep inside her that neither was right. Today she would say ‘her parents’ home’ about Salvador and ‘Rio’ as if she did not live here anymore..
‘As soon as I came here to live, I had this idea that Rio was just like São Paulo, but with the sea.’ She blushed and started to laugh.
I laughed with her, because it was certain that at that time she did not know what she was talking about.
‘I nearly regretted coming to the city when I realized that here seemed more like Salvador than São Paulo, and by that I mean the worse aspect of my hometown. The informalities, the forced intimacy with someone you barely knew, the routine of little corruptions, twisted shortcuts to get what you want. It is no shock to realize how aggressive the traffic is. At the same time, I never wanted to go to São Paulo, the second choice for anyone who left northeast looking for better jobs, to travel, to grow. I never took that possibility seriously; I don’t think I could live in a city without the ocean. When you don’t have it, seems to me that everything is in the middle; there is no horizon, just endless buildings. At least in Iceland I won’t have that problem. And yes, I know I can’t swim there. You can’t have it all, right?’ She smiled and kept talking:
‘After the first impressions about Rio, you start to adapt to that reality. I met good, interesting people and forgot to tell them my comparison with São Paulo. I knew about their stupid rivalry. I never understood why people don’t get along. For me it is built under vanity and nothing else.’ She smiled again and I could see her feeling more comfortable with me; she was messing with her hair, deciding for a ponytail, leaving it on one side or making a bun. Julia learned all about her subject, she knew the city by heart. ‘It is just like Brazil and Argentina, same fuss for nothing. And I had an Argentinean boyfriend who lived here and is still a friend. I am digressing.’
I let her talk, was an interesting story with a unique voice about my city and I only interfered for an observation, a small comment or question, to get some lost detail. I was lucky; after all, she was a great storyteller. Julia had lived good and bad romances, internationals, locals, long distance. All options of a free spirit, never married. She had fewer boyfriends than she wanted, never knew why, but had no regrets.
That young woman lived the city intensely. She kissed the statue of the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade more than once, her neighbor near the beach. She talked to him through her apartment window and felt sorry for the statue alone in the bench in cold wet days. She took a minivan in Lapa, downtown, late at night, screaming the name of every bus stop to get more people in until she got at home. She went up the hill to Santa Teresa, walking at night and did a few more things you do not do at those hours. She had alcoholic amnesia during a New Year’s Eve in Copacabana Beach; ran from the police in a political riot near the City Hall. Julia was a frequent guest at São Salvador Square, more for its name than the place itself. She danced black music in a street when it was only safe — Switzerland levels of security — because Rio was hosting the World Cup. She crossed a gun shooting on a bus; got robbed once by two teenagers with knives years ago and again with a gun pointed to her head, by two men in a motorcycle this year. Julia also hated the city — many times.
‘But I don’t know… there is something in this city, something different. You know, it’s not like Salvador, where I was born and raised. For Salvador I have this inexplicable love that runs in my veins; it is in the flesh, just like our dendê seed oil and pepper as we are used to say there. I came to Rio almost a woman, a young one though. I couldn’t see myself as a complete adult the same way I didn’t fall in love with city right away… I wasn’t that naïve. But in the end, I grew up and was happy here. And I will miss it.’
I agreed with her, I imagined Salvador had its problems, but it was her homeland and this is something you cannot take it away from the person or compare with any other place.
I glanced at the coffee shop and noticed for the first time that we had been there for a while. The rain was thinner, people were coming inside without umbrellas and others had left. Even Marcela was distracted by some small activity and had lost interest on us. She knew I was coming back later, maybe tomorrow or next weekend and she could wait to ask me about Julia with her out of the blue questions, fast and indiscrete, without time to prepare a reasonable answer. Marcela was used to cut long silences as if she had a sharpe knife, slicing unfinished subjects, like someone who is always in a rush to know every little thing and cannot stand boredom.
‘Do you know what hurted me the most here? When I really realized how much I loved the city? I got a job across town, at Barra da Tijuca and I had two options to get there; through the tunnel below Rocinha or bypassing Vidigal hill through Niemeyer Avenue. I always preferred the second one; there is nothing to see near Rocinha, it is just a huge favela with an avenue below its tunnel. On the other route you have all the sea view through the bus windows and, even if it takes a few more minutes to get there, it was worth it. When you are going down the hill, there is an open curve and looking to the sea you see a the cliff sustaining the street, an inclination that projects itself to the ocean, so the waves collide there, moving up and down slowly as if they are licking the wall. It is kind of sensual…’
I felt like she was telling me a secret, confessing something without thinking properly, leaving any censorship she went ahead. ‘I’ve never told anyone about this… sensual… I don’t know if you had noticed this place before, for me it is the most beautiful spot in the town. If you have to pass there in a stormy day with a violent sea, take a look. I’ve always wanted to stop there to contemplate. I didn’t and now they built that horrible cycling track. They cut my view, I almost cried.’
I knew where it was. A couple months ago in a stormy day that very horrible bikeway — which I thought was a great idea for the city — did not resist the huge waves, crashed and fell down to the sea, killing the ones who where passing on it.
‘Yes, it is the place of the accident.’ She read me instantly. ‘I try not to remember it.’
She was not a person of great gestures but she spoke with her hands. She also had a low voice and seemed to be disturbed by noises. Sometimes the coffee machine, the door opening or even the drag of chairs and tables distracted her; she did not complain about it, but lost track of her thoughts for a few seconds and then went back on her words. Julia finished the cappuccino, probably cold at that time.
‘I have to go soon. I am going to take a walk by the promenade across the street, now that stopped raining. It is on my list.’
She picked up the cell phone and looked at it for the first time since we started to talk. That interruption bothered me a little, I was jealous having to divide her attention. I wish we had more time, as I already was immerse in her words. I hoped I could live a little more of this girl’s story through her voice, someone who was going to live by herself in one of the coldest places on earth. She barely experienced real cold, coming from a tropical city, living in Rio, almost the same weather. Even with all its qualities, for all the reasons, Iceland would still be challenging.
‘If you want to walk with me, we can talk a little longer.’
‘If it is not inconvenient for you, I would like to.’ I looked around, searching for Marcela who was passing by, with all the used plates and cups in her hands. I waited until she was at the counter and waved for the check. She smiled at me with a serene look in her eyes as if had received good news recently.
‘I asked Marcela for the check, since you don’t have time.’
‘Thank you. I came here to tell you about my impressions of Rio and now I can’t say a word… not a very good storyteller as you can see… maybe it is easier if I tell you something else, like… why I decided to leave.’ She seemed lost as if she did not know how to proceed with the story. It gave me a relief. I have never wanted to be a biography writer.
‘We can talk about anything, it’s up to you. And you are a good storyteller.’ She was not listening to me and resumed talking while we were paying the check. I tried to pay it all and she did not let me.
‘Once, I travelled to Buenos Aires with a friend. Everything was cheap, we were the rich country of South America; it was during their economic crisis and before ours. So, there we were in this decoration store, a world of beautiful objects signed by some designer I didn’t know. I left the place with a lamp that had roses made of red cetin and a notebook letter. It was a series of envelopes with paper to write letters for yourself and the title of was just like that: letters for your future self, in English; was an American product. I though how interesting that was and bought it. When I came home, I was anxious and wrote my first letter to myself, without knowing if I could wait two years to open it, as I was supposed to do. Somehow I waited.’
We left the coffee shop. Outside was windy but without rain. However, the sky had these apocalyptical heavy dark gray clouds as if in the following minute they were going to melt and pour down on us. She did not care or pretend she did not see it. Julia did not have time for doubts and kept walking towards the traffic lights with the certainty that I was behind her. I was, even if the rain about to come advised me to go back.
She continued, telling me that back then she was upset with Rio, that she could not relate with people, her relationships were always superficial and empty as those tv commercials faking lives with the complexity of a cartoon. The city was all about television, we knew, and that ruined the real image of people. Real image of people… the people, themselves. Maybe we were haunted by this idea, having the media all the time, spreading irrelevant news about irrelevant people.
Julia told me the words she wrote years ago. She remembered most of them, as if she was reading the letter, words of an idealist strong person with more certainties than her current self. She wrote that she wanted to leave soon, to a quieter place where real life was more important than what people created about it, where the daily news were more important than the banal stories about nothing, news would be as fundamental as the black coffee you would take every early morning. She could not stand the summer even if she loved intensely the spring and in the end, she expected that in two years, if nothing had changed, she was going to leave the town for good.
‘And then… I decided to try. I laughed a lot when I started to read the letter because I was so angry and remembered I had my heart broken for a guy, hating my job, the city, everything. In the letter I refused to sit down and do nothing. Time has passed and that was exactly what happened. Even now I’m not satisfied with my life. I wasn’t sad anymore or didn’t have the weight I carried two years before, but I wasn’t lighter either. I even talked to my therapist about it. I decided to try. I didn’t want to be a victim of the violence in Rio and become a statistic, a number with no purpose; I didn’t want to know the names and lives of celebrities. I didn’t want to work where I did anymore and everything became clear for me. Without knowing, I was saving money. I found a good excuse; a Ph. D in a field I’ve always wanted to study. I applied last year and tomorrow: Iceland. All because of the letter.’
While she was talking I could see the light, the happiness in her eyes. Julia did not have all figured out, she did not prepare herself enough for it and that was why she kept repeating that Iceland was a great place to live. So what if it was a very cold place? She could buy clothes, coffee, vodka and even try whisky and tea, drinks she did not like — alongside milk and açaí, those were impossible to drink. So what if the food was bizarre and creepy? Where there is coffee, there is bread and pie, cheese, fruits. She could try everything but horse, whale and dolphin. So what if Iceland was far away from Brazil? The problem was coming and going, she hated airplanes but she knew they were just for a moment and even there, she was going to sleep magically as she always did when she got into airplanes. Julia was, once and again going to beat the fear with laziness and sweet dreams.
I do not know if those were all her thoughts and words or mine, questions I could not ask her. She made her mind and plans. I realized that, even without much planning and calculation in advance, she was just like me; always weighing pros and cons until it was time to take action and she did act. It was there, in that final word, in that verb that we were so fundamentally different. And because of that same verb she had found a new admirer.
‘There is a time when you have to stop wondering if it is going to work out, if it is the right choice and just do it.’ Julia said and again she was seeing through me. ‘If I believed in horoscope, I mean, really believe in it, I should dive in and live by emotions, like my zodiac sign, letting the water take me as I already did once or twice, in relationships. But it never work like that, right? We have to be rational, just a little, in the minimum level. Otherwise, we stand still and drown ourselves in fear.’
That was about it. Julia smiled at me in a way she did not smile before or I was looking at her in a different way. She smiled as someone who was sure about her actions, who knew that that was the right thing to do and this is a cliché. She smiled as someone who found her destiny and had a new adventure to live. You only live once and now I am suffering for adding this other much known sentence. Writing is hard. And, if all the clichés were not enough, it started to rain. We were at the promenade, walking and looking at the beach; the wind started to come accompanied by raindrops. It was a thin cold rain, the kind that gets you wet slowly and then you are cold without having notice. I knew she had to leave; we could not stay in the rain when everybody was opening their umbrellas and going to warmer places. We stopped.
‘Good luck, it is going to be an amazing journey.’ I said when I knew didn’t have to and then reached out my hand.
‘I know it will. I am going to miss this.’ And then she hugged me. It came out as this awkward moments, when one was not expecting and is caught by surprise, one hand stays in the way when they should reach the person’s back and ends up finding their stomach. It was funny but we did not laugh. She broke the embrace and straightened the scarf, closed the jacket and went away, walking in the promenade towards the end of the beach. I did not expect that, but that she would cross the street like everybody else. She stopped again and opened her purse. She had a pink umbrella. I was still standing, looking at her. Julia stared at me and smiled, it was the last time she knew I was still there, the same certainty she had before, when we left the coffee shop.
Now I was waiting for the traffic lights, my hair already wet; starting to feel cold.
‘I have to get used to it, haven’t I?’ She talked to me louder than before as she was a little far away. I nodded and she started to walk again, with all the time in her hands.
I know now I was wrong all the time. She was not sad or tense. She was already missing the city. I took a deep breath and began to cross the street when the lights turned green. It was raining stronger than before, when we met at the coffee shop. A bus stopped abruptly almost over the crosswalk and the noise distracted more than scared me. Suddenly, I lost my way and looked at the direction where Julia was going. I could see afar, a pink umbrella among others, all darker than hers. I smiled and started to walk again.