Authors: Alex Carr
Tags: #Fiction, #Beirut (Lebanon), #Forgers, #Intelligence Service - United States, #France
“Oh, yes!” Amadeo said, disregarding the reproach. “Marseille, wasn’t it? Maison des Baumettes. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, my dear. Just a little vacation is all. Time to catch up on one’s reading, make some new friends. How long have you been out?”
“Three years,” I told him.
“And you’re still in the business?”
“In a way. I took a job with Solomon,” I answered. “Can’t begrudge a girl trying to make a living.”
There was no use in lying. As quickly and as far as rumor traveled in these circles, it was a good bet the brothers already knew about Solomon. If they didn’t, they could easily find out.
“Of course not,” Amadeo said kindly, but Gaspar seemed less forgiving.
“And this visit?” the younger brother said, smiling coolly. “As pleasant a surprise as it is, I can’t believe you’ve come all this way just to see two old men.”
“I had some business in Seville,” I lied, poorly. “And a few days to spare.”
“Nostalgia, then,” Amadeo observed.
I nodded, biding my time. How to sound eagerly disinterested? “Not many of us left from the old days, are there? Though I hear Rahim’s still in town.”
“That’s right,” Amadeo said. “I’d forgotten you were a couple once.” He turned to his brother. “We saw him just the other day.”
Gaspar shook his head. “You’re mistaken,” he said flatly.
“But yes,” Amadeo persisted. “It was at Eduardo’s, remember? He was leaving just as we were coming in.”
“Eduardo Morais?” I asked, remembering the old watchmaker from twelve years earlier.
Gaspar cleared his throat, then smiled apologetically. “You’ll have to forgive my brother,” he said, ignoring my question, bringing his gaze to rest on Amadeo. “He has an old man’s memory, I’m afraid. The truth is that we haven’t seen Rahim for some time. I wouldn’t be able to tell you if he was still in Lisbon or not.” He opened one of the drawers of his desk and drew out a bottle of port and three glasses. “How about that drink, then?” he proposed.
“Yes,” Amadeo stammered. “Yes, of course.” He looked greedily at the wine, then turned to me. “An old man’s memory,” he said, tapping the side of his head. “Sorry, my dear. I can’t imagine what I was thinking.”
I lowered my eyes, a girl looking for an old love, a man she’d once lost herself with. “It’s been a long time,” I conceded.
Gaspar poured out the three glasses and passed one to each of us. “To old friends!” he said, hoisting his glass.
I raised my glass in return, touched it to the brothers’, and took a sip of the port.
Amadeo downed his wine, then winked at me. “To love,” he said, raising his glass, then emptying it once more.
Not love, exactly, but something close to it. The idea of love, maybe. A symmetry of desire. Two in the morning, and out the window the coast rushes by, scant, scattered lights of tiny port towns, terrestrial constellations vanishing into the void of the sea. In the compartment next door, a party is brewing, three American boys and three dark-haired Italian girls we saw smoking between cars earlier. The melancholic sounds of Brazilian jazz serenade us through the wall, the faint odor of hashish.
Not that we mind being kept up. It’s been three days since we’ve slept, since that night on the Place des Moulins. Three days, at the end of which Rahim has surprised me by asking me to come with him to Lisbon. And I have surprised us both by saying yes.
Rahim gets up and opens the window, and night air floods the compartment, the deafening clatter of the rails. Against the glass, his body is perfect, naked as the dark earth beyond. He bends down slightly to light a cigarette, holding his hand to protect the flame, and his palm and face flicker and glow. Three nights, and I have yet to tire of looking at him, nor does it seem possible that I will.
He hands me the cigarette and I take a drag, but it is not really what I want.
“Come here,” I say, taking his fingers, pulling myself up to meet him. It is not in my nature to succumb so completely to pleasure, and yet I am learning. I slide up just slightly so that our bodies come together perfectly. Face and hips and feet like two seamless halves of a single creature, two wings folding forward to touch. And in that moment it seems impossible that we should ever not be.
Rahim is hard again, his lips soft and warm on mine. I can taste the tobacco in his mouth, the cheap red wine we drank earlier out of paper cups. But even in getting what I want, there is little satisfaction, just my need for more, the sense that such wanting could kill me.
I put my legs around his waist and lift myself toward him, trusting him to hold me. From next door, laughter, and then quiet, sudden and still. And out the window, the ceaseless motion of the wheels, sheer force and power carrying us into the night. The train lunges slightly, shimmying on the rails, and Rahim puts his hands under my naked hips, steadying me against him.
OT SHOPPING, VALSAMIS THOUGHT
as he sat in the rain-spattered window of the café across from Saudade and nursed his syrupy coffee. It had been a good half hour since Nicole had disappeared into the horrible souvenir store, and Valsamis was beginning to think she’d slipped out the back on him.
Out on the rua Augusta, a river of black umbrellas swirled and eddied, sweeping past the bright storefronts. Inside, two old men played dominoes, a group of students smoked cigarettes and laughed while they talked, and three workers in blue coveralls with nothing better to do lingered at the stand-up bar.
The communal life of a European city, Valsamis thought wistfully. The smells of tobacco and fresh bread rolls and hot cod fritters. A pair of elderly women stepped inside, shaking the rain from their umbrellas. Each was immaculately turned out in stockings and a neat wool suit, sensible pumps and dark gloves, and a matching hat.
Yes, Valsamis thought, this was where he wanted things to end. If not Lisbon, a place like it, somewhere civilized, an apartment in Hania, perhaps. Three rooms overlooking the Sea of Crete. This was where he would grow old, walking along the waterfront each morning and into some little café. Drinking thick Greek coffee, rotting his teeth on ouzo.
This home, not the place he’d left, fast food and cheap clothes, windowless buildings full of shoddy abundance. The students stood to go, and Valsamis glanced up from his coffee, catching the eye of one of the boys, a slim young man in a black sweater and blue jeans. Valsamis smiled and the boy smiled back, shrugging into his coat and book bag. A slightly dreamy smile, as if he were looking past Valsamis.
Yes, Valsamis agreed as the young man smiled again, this is where I belong. Suddenly he was weary of it all. Weary of what he had done and what he would have to do, the presumption in Morrow’s voice.
You’ll take care of them when this is finished. Ali and the woman both.
The students pushed out the door, and Valsamis’s gaze slid to the street, to a girl outside, waving and smiling, waiting to greet the boy as he emerged. For a brief instant Valsamis saw himself for what he was, a strange man at the edge of the boy’s line of vision, an awkward tourist drinking coffee in the window of a café on the rua Augusta. A fool.
Across the street, beyond Saudade’s dusty display windows, a figure moved. The door swung open and Nicole stepped out onto the street. She headed south, down to the tram stop on the rua da Conceição, and that was where Valsamis lost her. Somewhere in the bustle of coats and umbrellas, in the push to board the tram, she saw him and stepped back out of the fray. It was too late by the time Valsamis noticed, the doors already closed, the tram clanging toward the Alfama and her face slipping away behind him, her shoulders framed by the dark canopy of her umbrella.
Laundry as bright as confetti. The yellow flutter of a caged canary. An old woman grilling sardines beneath the window of our apartment in the Bairro Alto. This was our Lisbon. A summer reduced to a tourist’s snapshots, to one warm night at a café on the Miradouro de Santa Catarina, the sound of a
in the distance.
In the morning we would lie late in bed, listening to the neighborhood through our open window, the tsk-tsk of the woman next door sweeping her steps, a bundle of old men gossiping their way down the street. In the evening Rahim would make large, elaborate dinners for the ragtag community of drifters and students who found their way to our apartment each night.
These were Rahim’s multitudes, the same
we’d seen that first night on the Place des Moulins. Young men who’d come north to escape the repression and hopelessness of their homes, who’d found a different kind of hopelessness waiting for them. Immigrant poverty. The scorn of European women. Rahim fed them all, though not out of charity, for they were his bread and butter.
At the time he did identity papers, mostly. French work permits for the steady stream of Moroccans and Algerians heading north, and the occasional passport or student visa. Rahim was a stickler for secrecy, for keeping his work and personal lives separate; he’d rented a space out on the northwestern fringe of the city, a shabby little studio tacked on the back of a widow’s house, in the shadow of the old aqueduct. He told his landlady he was an artist.
When he had work, he would go there in the afternoons. Sometimes I would go with him. On a few occasions I even helped. But mainly, during the hours when he was gone, I just waited. I hadn’t really worked in months, hadn’t needed to.
Often I would walk around the city, up across the hills and through the ancient alleyways of the Alfama, or down the wide Avenida da Liberdade to the sprawling Parque Eduardo VII and the glittering glass dome of the Estufa Fria. Or I would take the train out to Belém and sit in the tower park and watch the mammoth container ships heading out to sea. Even this was part of the waiting, and the waiting itself was something I had become. Not myself but a perversion of myself, surrendered to the fetish of longing.
I saw John Valsamis as soon as I stepped out of Saudade, his silhouette like a clenched fist in the window of the café across the street. It was hardly a surprise, part of the game I’d known to expect. All the same, I hated the thought of being shadowed. I let him follow me down to the tram stop on the rua da Conceição, then slipped back out of the crowd just before the number 28’s doors banged shut.