Editor’s Note: This text is available in English and Portuguese. Click here to read in Portuguese.
We’re a family of four. I sleep very late because I’m an insomniac. Sometimes I only manage to fall sleep around four AM. At six I’m already up and tending my beard in front of the mirror. I see Letícia from the corner of my eye, slowly returning to consciousness from a deep sleep. By the time I’m done with my beard she will be awake, stretching, wishing me a good morning, complaining about her back pain, sneezing three, four times, complaining about the dust in this part of the city. I’ll listen to her with a smile and apologise for not chatting with her while tending my beard. I’ll kiss her when I’m done, and she’ll smile once more.
I met Letícia at university. We had a few seminars together, but we weren’t friends. At a party one night I got turned down by someone and ended up with her instead. I wasn’t just turned down, I was rejected. Every man gets rejected, that’s what my father used to tell us, his three sons. We grew up thinking that women were there to humiliate us, to select the best of us, and that we had to be successful for a chance at being chosen by the most beautiful ones, the most intelligent ones, the richest ones. Getting turned down is part of life for men. Rejection is something else. We’re rejected for what we are, we get turned down for what we have.
A story forms in silence. Before Letícia came into my life, I was in love, vulnerable, smitten, so she came at a good time. She stopped my thoughts from spiralling. She got me back on my feet, helped me let go of the hopeless yearning for a love that would never have worked out, it was a delusion, a mistake.
Letícia truly had all of the finest qualities. I was never going to get a better chance, so after a year together, I asked for her hand in marriage. She was thirty years old. I was twenty-nine. My mother was the happiest when she heard the news. Then it was my father. My brothers were also interested, hoping Letícia had a big group of friends just like her. But she didn’t. Letícia always has been, and always will be, different, unique. Our marriage will last forever.
When our first son was born, we decided that Letícia would stay at home and look after the baby, because another would soon be on the way. Letícia gave up her career in law to become a mother. She’s the kind of person who doesn’t believe you can be a jack of all trades. It was the perfect solution for me. I’ve always had plenty of money; money from work, money from the family, it never runs out. Letícia’s never complained about it. We have a life that few people even dream of: we’ve never argued, we go out to dinner at the best restaurants in town, to the cinema, the theatre, we have a huge library where we spend a lot of time, we give each other shoulder rubs, sometimes elbow rubs, there’s always music playing in the background. A testament to the love we have.
In fact, our marriage is practically perfect. Our boys are healthy, handsome and wildly intelligent. They’re nineteen and twenty years old. They’re always out on the weekends, they have lots of close friends. Letícia and I are in good health, we always get tested with some of the best doctors in Latin America. Life couldn’t be better. On those repetitious nights of insomnia, I imagine disturbing scenarios, like a bomb falling on our roof and destroying the house, our corpses exploding and turning into dust in an instant. Or maybe an apocalyptic silence, a long-buried, fossilised revelation made manifest.
I don’t think very much about my rejection before I dated Letícia. Every day in the car, on the metro, in the office, to try to forget it.
Gustavo, my eldest, sometimes tries to get me to talk about past girlfriends; he wants to know who I was before I was Dad, before Letícia. I give him the same answer as Lucas, the youngest, who is also very curious. There is nothing to know. It’s not important what happened before Letícia. I’ve never been as happy as I am now, with your mum. Imagine that. I would have been unhappy no matter how life turned out; but here and now, I feel good, I’m a lucky man, don’t you agree?
The other day, Lucas brought his girlfriend over. A beautiful young woman, good family, raised well, she studies Languages and wants to be a translator and writer. Shame, but nobody’s perfect, I thought to myself. Still, she was lovely; her political stance was neutral, she wasn’t critical of the left nor the right. Gustavo couldn’t stand her. My eldest son is immensely passionate about politics and, as a result, is a radical leftist. We never argue or have heated discussions, but sometimes he gets carried away. Gustavo has always said that if they aren’t left wing or right wing it’s because they’re right wing. He doesn’t like false smiles, good behaviour. Gustavo is a force of nature. A very clever lad, but I feel there’s something aged existing in him, a kind of sadness that I can’t quite put my finger on. Sometimes he reminds me of myself when I was young. It’s as if he hasn’t quite got it together. It might sound silly, but he gives me the impression of being a drifter. Gustavo is very discreet about his relationships, just like me. He never introduces us to his girlfriends—and we know he’s had several.
His best friend is a lad from the favela. He’s black, something that makes Letícia uncomfortable, she has to explain it to her friends. Gustavo is very different. He’s the black sheep of the family. He’ll find his place sooner or later.
When Gustavo was a child, he lived for playing with the son of Angélica, our maid. They’re the same age. The boy, like Gustavo’s new friend, was also black. When they used to play together, Letícia and I thought that it would be a good idea to expose them to other realities, integrate them into the community and leave the glass dome we were always under. Give the kids a little life experience. Gustavo became a little too attached to Little Bruno. They did everything together. Birthday parties here at the condo were a nuisance: the first slice of cake always went to the maid’s son. Nothing for Lucas. Then came the inconvenience and stress of having to take Gustavo to Little Bruno’s birthday parties in the favela—it’s not called that now, but it’s the same shit. Letícia and I went up the hill with Gustavo, the only positive on that day. Angélica didn’t really know how to behave when we got there and kept telling us that we could go if we wanted, that she would take care of the kids. But Letícia was terrified of being kidnapped. We all stayed there, among people who looked at us untrustingly, as if we were the problem. We managed to convince Angélica to hold parties for her son here at the apartment building, in the gourmet lounge and the playroom. Surprisingly, the residents even agreed to make the pool available. It happened once, never again. Only Gustavo, Lucas and one of Lucas’s friends went. Nobody from the favela went. Angélica ended up throwing another party the following week as the boy was sad that so few people went. Letícia and I were surprised. We thought the place would be full of people from their neck of the woods. If not for the boy, then at least out of curiosity to check out one of the best condos in the city. But no, nobody came.
The boys became teenagers and Letícia was starting to feel uncomfortable. We thought of firing Angélica but couldn’t find anyone able to work the long hours our faithful maid did. Angélica stayed on, Little Bruno became big, and was practically part of the family. Gustavo never left his side. He would lend him reading books, he started teaching him English. I had a talk with Gustavo, to try and get Bruno to stop dreaming so big. Gustavo even gave him clothes as gifts. Letícia sorted bags and bags of old clothes for him, which offended Gustavo. He said he wasn’t homeless, he was clothed, he was loved, he was educated. He said he was the same as us. Gustavo always had these outbursts, this passion, these excesses. I let him know that he wasn’t going to wait around, the lad was going to want to go to university to become a doctor, a lawyer. Lucas has always had his head screwed on. He never got involved with Bruno. He was very polite, but always kept him at a distance. It’s that Gustavo is a little different.
It happened on the registration day for the university’s admissions tests.
Gustavo went with Bruno to register. A young black man to fulfil their quotas, how ridiculous. Anyway, it’s his right, apparently. That day, Gustavo managed to come home, thank God. The police hit a group of kids who were causing a ruckus, disturbing the order. Many were people like Gustavo. But there was also a group of people like Bruno. There was so much confusion that the police ended up shooting at the whole crowd to keep the order. Such a shame, that accident, the bullet lodged in Bruno. Gustavo is still horribly traumatised. We are lucky to be able to afford therapy with the best psychoanalysts in the city. Angélica had to go. Poor woman, she couldn’t tell sugar from salt anymore. She burst into tears whenever she saw Gustavo, a dark cloud hanging over him as well, in the hallways at home. We understand the poor woman’s suffering, but we also need help. Letícia can’t handle everything on her own in a house this big, and Angélica’s presence was getting in the way of Gustavo’s recovery.
Bruno’s accident happened about two years ago. Gustavo still doesn’t talk about it. In his room there’s a picture of the two of them climbing a mountain in Minas Gerais. There must be more hidden away somewhere, but I won’t go look for them, leave the boy in peace.
Aside from that rough patch, our family is, and I mean it when I say this, exemplary. There is mutual support and respect at home. I’ve talked with Letícia about Gustavo perhaps going to Europe to do a masters. He could stay for a year or two in England. We have friends there who could help us, in case he needs contacts. I think leaving Brazil would be good for our boy. It’s not that it’s bad here. On the contrary: up to a certain point in the past there was theft and corruption here like you wouldn’t believe. Finally, the curse was broken and a man who brought some vitality, some new blood got in, with more solid Christian values. Yes it’s a controversial subject. For a long time his persona shocked us all. But he’s a transparent leader. He’s never hidden what he thinks. I value that honesty very much.
I also think it would do Gustavo good to breathe different air and stop with this communist nonsense. Who knows, maybe he’ll get an English girlfriend? Letícia would be so happy. Imagine bilingual, blonde grandchildren, wonderful. Perhaps Gustavo is depressed because Lucas has been with Valentina for years and, as a result, they will get married. We met her parents, very good people. Letícia made a new friend. Valentina’s mother, Vanessa, is a charity coordinator that serves soup to the city’s poor and homeless. Once a month, Vanessa comes here to pick up Letícia and the two go there to feed and chat with the poor, before making their way to the wine club they’re members of. It’s a rush, but there’s time. I am so proud of that woman’s big heart. She does her part. She’s not like those people who just talk. Letícia walks the walk. She chats with, and even hugs the poor souls once a month, fills their bellies with soup. And then she has to cope with Gustavo laughing in her face, calling his own mother a snob, saying how she would be doing more good by teaching the people to read, and find jobs. Sometimes they argue. Two very different points of view.
Whenever we touch on the success of Lucas and Valentina, Gustavo gets up and goes to his bedroom, slamming the door, or heads out. The poet, the black boy, his new friend, has stopped visiting. Gustavo said they’re still friends, but it’s him who is ashamed of his household. The world’s gone mad. Gustavo says he’s ashamed of living in one of the most luxurious condos in the city. I always thought it would be a good idea to expose people from those communities to our reality, so they have some ambition in life. There are such warm, receptive people here, and still we’re made to feel guilty for our jobs and quality of life. It’s become so difficult to live in this world I don’t recognise anymore.
I slept at four. It’s six o’clock and before I finish doing my beard my lovely Letícia will be awake, stretching, wishing me a good morning, complaining about her back pain, sneezing three, four times, complaining about the dust in this part of the city. I’ll listen to her with a smile and apologise for not chatting with her while tending my beard. I’ll kiss her when I’m done, and she’ll smile once more.
We’ll have breakfast without the boys, who weren’t at home last night. She’ll check if I’ve packed everything for my conference in Uruguay. It’s only for three days, but Letícia hugs me and says she’ll miss me, asks me to ring her regularly, bring her news and a surprise. I like these work trips a lot. Some people go to psychologists, others go to conferences.
In the taxi on the way to the airport, I take a sweet the driver offers. My hands unwrap the brightly coloured paper to find another, thinner piece, which really protects the sweet. The sweet glistens in my fingers, which are beginning to tremble. I think that I might die soon, but I don’t like thinking about death before flying. Instead, I think of my rejection before meeting Letícia. This traffic can go to hell. We are stuck and we haven’t even made it a kilometre from home. I distract myself by looking out of the window and spot Gustavo. He doesn’t see me. He’s with his friend, the poet, the black lad. I lower my eyes and see that their hands are open, together, holding each other, most certainly sweating on a day like today. I think of his girlfriends that we never got to meet. I think of my girlfriends before Letícia that never existed. I think of what my boys asked me, about who I was before I got married. I look again at Gustavo’s hand, enveloped in that man’s. I think how being turned down is not the same as rejection. I look at my hands, still trembling and empty.
Translated by Emyr Humphreys
From Mapas para desaparecer, copyright © 2020 by Nara Vidal
English translation copyright © 2021
Emyr Humphreys is a freelance translator from the Portuguese and Welsh. After graduating from the University of Liverpool with a degree in Latin American studies, he spent three years living and working in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He returned to the UK in 2017 to study for an MA in Translation Studies at UCL, researching contemporary Brazilian literature in translation and graduating with a distinction. He currently lives and works in mid Wales.