I, You, He
Archipelago Books consistently introduces brilliant international writers to English-language readers. In May, they'll publish Caio Fernando Abreu’s collection of eighteen stories, Moldy Strawberries, bringing this revered Brazilian writer to English for the first time. Abreu animates 1980s Brazil with deeply personal accounts of daily life against a larger biopolitical backdrop—much like Reinaldo Arenas did for 1970s Cuba. But the tone of these stories is what I found most striking. Abreu balances matter-of-fact description with an inquisitive voice similar to that of Ocean Vuong. The story excerpted here typifies Abreu’s investigation of self, otherness, and the unlikelihood of connection.
For Raquel Salgado
I touch, you touch, he touches. Or: we touch, you and I, we grope our way in the dark as he swans around the room? I know very little about you, I merely suspect you exist, since the moment I realized that neither he nor I are the owners of certain words. Like I finally noticed a blank space between he and I, and then – out of alienation, intuition, invention – sensed you, the owner of this space between his light and my dark. Do you touch, too? About you, I barely know anything. But you balance out the pure shadow that is between him and me.
I am going away, I am leaving, and I need you to understand before I go, crucified on the back of a train at high speed. I try again, slower and louder: but he doesn’t go away. Day after day, I notice, he becomes nicer, more efficient, more solicitous – always smiling a lot, always bowing to others, head always down, like a geisha. Geisha, him, that grand old slut, with her silence of tiny steps and bound feet. I need to try to establish a certain order to what I’m saying here, and say it again, see if you can understand me: he’s not going away, but it’s inside him that I’m going away. From inside him, I take a peek outside. And I do not dare.
What I see in others, with their big open pores, are faces full of vigor. Those faces on the outside lean forward and I am afraid, I could never look straight into all those irises floating on viscous whiteness, webbed with red veins, and I feel disgusted. Not by the eyes, but by the insides of those faces, showing through the veins. Also not by the mouths, but by the gummy redness inside when they’re wide open. The countless black dots on the noses, sometimes going all the way up to the forehead, between the eyebrows, the pink inside the noses, the open throats with their moving wetness, full of little spasms, tiny convulsions. When the vigorous faces lean forward, I feel that I also show through the thin veins, and I fear that a blink of an eye could push me out, among sharp edges. And when he opens his quicksand mouth to spit words out, drops of saliva and bad breath, I fear him being just this word, this drop, this breath. Just as when he rubs his palms against one another and releases his beams of energy in the air, as if he were a vibration, not a being.
I can always stop, look beyond the window. But from inside the train, the view is never still. The colorful ipe trees blend with the concrete walls, and the concrete walls with the narrow streets of discolored houses, and the streets of discolored houses with the faces of women washing clothes by the river, and all the way from the train their faces are neither moving nor vigorous, but featureless, carved in clay over bundles of dirty clothes, and once more the purple and yellow of the ipe trees and the brown of the earth, and the burgundy of the bougainvillea and the green of the military uniform crossing the tracks. There’s an excess of colors and shapes in the world. And everything vibrates and pulses, trembling. From that last afternoon of light, what I still remember is the sticky cold sweat on my palms, the countless glimmering dots from the passing cars, my expression shattered with the noise. The cars were colorful, metallic sparks hovering over the asphalt. I pressed my dizziness with my wet palms, not sure if I should go, or turn back, or quietly stay still in the middle of the crazy flashes of light spinning around me. I must have started to scream, because he suddenly sealed his mouth shut, not letting me escape through his closed throat.
But was it you, or him, or me, that the man sometimes visited? Whose tongue was it that explored the deepest of all the orifices of his body with no disgust? From my window, I watched the hands hurriedly unzipping the pants, the skilled fingers parting the fabric, the nostrils breathing in the secret scent of his groin. The man’s big and vigorous body. From behind the bars, I wanted those hands, mine, that touched him and also those fingers, mine, and even those nostrils, mine, and that tongue licking his hard member, until it was erect enough to very carefully enter ripping him with pleasure and pain. Was it you, me, or him, who slowly twisted the body until collapsing in bed, clasping the man’s waist and butt with our thighs and feeling him inside me, you, him, the way a woman feels her man, face to face, never the way a man receives another man, face against the nape of the neck, in this love made of sperm and hair, of sweat and shit? Behind his window, I looked without fully allowing myself. But our orgasm was the same, and in that moment we were one, us three, ridden by this man we exhausted with the thirst of our tongues. In moments like this, I knew your face as intimately as I knew his and my own. And the big open pores didn’t scare me anymore, and all that slime from the orifices didn’t disgust me.
As for you, have you noticed how the world is all corners and edges? Have I called your attention to the scarcity of gentle shapes in the world? Everything is hard, and wounds. I notice, you notice how he moves without incident between the edges. Does he seem sweet to you, coiled like this, avoiding any touch that could hurt him? Because to me it looks forced. I’m very familiar with his plots and I know of each time he gave in so the outside wouldn’t hurt him. Look, listen, and observe: these are the coils of a snake, not those of a bird.
Only sometimes do I feel that I understand. Then I want to open every window in the house to let the sun come in. That’s what I think of doing every morning, always at the same time, as I hear the sounds he makes before heading out the door. I listen attentively to the water running through the tap, the brush grating against his teeth, the water in the toilet taking to the sewer the crap rejected by his intestines, the water washing the signs of sleep from the corners of his eyes, the cold water from the shower invigorating his muscles, the hot water for his coffee, I listen to it all. And water, water, water, and water, I repeat to myself each morning, and even if I spend the rest of the day under the sheets, my hand inventing hidden pleasures between my legs, there’s always a part of me that goes with him on the busy streets, on the dirty path catching the metallic sparks from the cars, as he doles out his first fake smiles of the day, out and about, following his well-plotted script without any hesitation. He knows what he wants, that pig. And knows exactly how to get it. Out, and about, this part of me that goes with him tries to escape through his eyes, through his mouth, to warn the friendly moving faces that observe him. Each time he senses my presence and rejects it, pushes me deeper into himself so I won’t unmask him. And he steals my voice, takes away my gestures, so I am silenced and paralyzed, powerless between the hard corners he dodges, that dancing pig, capable of the dirtiest tricks for the big solo. I go unwitnessed as I unmask him each morning, while I hear the water running, meant to wash away all the dirt. But I watch you, I search you, I suspect you’re my accomplice, not his, because your help is the only thing I can expect, so I always insist and ask, do you understand me? so, you understand, me? do you, now, or ever?
It was always pleasant when that woman came with her charts, her graphs, her drafting compasses to talk about the movement of the stars above our heads, wise and distracted, drawing pyramids, triangles, spheres, and diamonds on the grid paper. It was on one of these early visits that he tried to send her away, laughing rudely, the way people laugh at stuff like this, always choosing pigs over birds. Was it you who helped me violently shut his mouth until his teeth ground to the point of breaking that one time? Because that effort wasn’t only mine, I found out, and perhaps that was the first time I noticed your presence parallel to mine, and to his. But perhaps chronologies don’t matter, if we coexisted even before my knowledge of you. As for the woman, she kept on coming, always said that when the Moon is in Aquarius... But I never knew about constellations: all I did was welcome her, and she seemed like a girl full of faith in everything that she suspected was real, even if invisible.
All my days are like an anticipation of my departure. I move between corners as someone who knows that soon he won’t be present anymore. The suitcase has been packed, the farewells have been bid. Walking from one end to the other of the train platform, all there is for me to do is look at things, sluggish and sad, emotionless, no desire to stay. The shutters open, the benches look like benches, and vases hold flowers in their depths. Things look the way they are. Nothing will change the presence of things in the world, and my departure yesterday, today, or tomorrow, won’t change a thing. Each thing looks exactly the way each thing is. And so I too look like myself, walking back and forth, between flavorless cigarettes, bleeding newspapers, and the certainty that the only thing that would prevent my departure is your accepting this invitation: don’t you want to help me kill him?
One day, the man didn’t come anymore. And not knowing if it had been me, you, or him that sent him away, that day I wrote something like a prayer that sounded ridiculous to me. But revisiting these notes now, it pulses as if the words had been stabbed, and I realize now, it sounds as if it had also been written for you, for him, and for me. This:
I’m not waiting for this man who is not only this one but all men and none like a thirst for something I’ve never drunk something that doesn’t have the shape of water only the narrowness of the here and now and I’ve been waiting for him since the day I was born and since then I’ve known that at the time of my death mixing up memories and hallucinations and premonitions a little while ago the last thing I would ask you would be a but where are you but where have you been this entire time I was hurting without you and to cheer me up afterward maybe you’d give up or give me a beautiful smile with no teeth a bright smile in the darkness of my mouth a broad smile that had never been possible before and spit out anything, something like, so you’ve always been living a searching life without ever finding yourself and silence so I can die now a dead death no coming back to this life spent marked with so many scars carved by so many wounds but none of them lethal to the point of stopping this ridiculousness till the hour of my death amen.
But this face of mine, newly awakened, slowly refreshed and without a single sigh, because there’s nothing to mourn, it crudely thinks, this barefaced face: so let’s not part ways, the three of us. When I believe I’m out, I’m in. And when I guess I’m in, I’m out. Of you or him, of me in me, embedded triplicity, though it might seem confusing I think about it this way, and it is nearly clear as the city roars in the background and I lean this body of ours over the seven overpasses: embedded triplicity, strange triplicity, intertwined triplicity. Triplicity forever conjoined, the death of one the death of all three, I don’t want you to help me kill him because it would kill you and also me. I recompose myself, I recompose you, and I recompose him, who is also me and also you.
The woman said that the Moon was in Scorpio, and told me: no teeth, torn, bits of puke hardened and stuck to his chest hair, the man followed her. Before I could touch her, she found the little white animal with its pink snout, and grabbing a piece of wood she beat it, she beat it and beat it until the creature was a mash of blood and broken bones and hair, where a pair of open eyes that wouldn’t die also floated. I told her: through the tree trunk, from one end of the cliff to the other, I crossed it. That was when I stopped, afraid of the abyss. I wouldn’t turn back, or go forward. Then I looked at the face of that cliff and saw a bunch of grapes hanging from a vine and my fear started to dissipate because I wouldn’t go hungry and I wouldn’t die, because the harvest would come soon, a ripe time for grapes. Oneirically, we exchanged dreams between the two of us, the three of us, the four. And the woman trapped in the woman’s body called for me, for you, for him, not minding that we were three. She knew and wanted the three of us. Before she left, she wrote on the graph paper, looking at each of us, keep this: the other one also searches blindly, the other one too, and they’re always three.
A while later – now, I realize: it’s through the dark hallways of a maze that we grope our way, the three of us, searching for the vertex. I know you don’t understand, and I know he also doesn’t. About your day, I barely know anything, but I know about the maze in you, as I know about his maze in me, of my maze in you. I don’t understand you either.
I need to stop. I’m tired. This light that could be either enlightenment or madness fills my head. Is it from me, from you, or from him that comes this voice retelling yesterday’s dream? As if it were all you, you go into the theater and they invite you to play the role of someone else’s dream, someone who isn’t present, and you say that you’ve never seen the play and never read the script and that you know nothing about interpreting intentions interiorizations and they tell you that it doesn’t matter because it’s just a dream and a dream needs no rehearsing, and you don’t know if you start to laugh or to scream, so you run away to meet someone, but the woman’s face has the man’s eyes and the woman’s mouth, the woman’s breasts are the woman’s breasts, the same ones, with the hardened nipples that brushed against your untrimmed beard when you kissed them, but the woman’s sex is the man’s sex, that same one that flooded you with warm sperm, and you feel neither fear nor disgust, but you move away, confused, and you walk and you walk, searching for the theater to go into the scene and perform your dream of someone else’s dream as well as you can, then you search and search inside the theater, in pyramids of narrow hallways, and you continue searching for the stage, the vertex, the royal chamber, your cue, your mark, and before waking up you don’t think, or you think, yes, I don’t know, he doesn’t know, you don’t know, and no one else knows either if perhaps you’re lost and haven’t memorized your lines, because the stage is the search for the stage and your role is not knowing the role and everything’s alright and the visible disorder is suddenly ordered and the great order of all things is chaos, spinning disordered the way chaos must, and so I dive and so you dive and so he dives: the dizziness of our six steps as our balance gets more stable and precise over the razor’s edge. But – I know, you know, we know – the grapes might take too long to ripen. And we’re almost out of time.