I was in Paris when I saw Fernando Pessoa. It happened in a bar at Belleville, at Rue du Faubourg du Temple, where I was killing time and waiting for a Alba. It seemed strange, because Pessoa never left Lisbon. When I went up and asked for a light, he seemed almost frightened. I asked his name, Ricardo Reis, he said. Of course, I thought. So, my name turned out to be Manuela Bonifacino, and I'm from Italy. Neither of us were fooled, but our delusions were bordering on maniacal.
He was a doctor and I was a patient. I started talking without waiting for answers, but secretly willing them. He drank the cheapest wine, his sad grey outfit screamed everything but worldly. I drank jack on the rocks, which is not the way of italian ladies. I talked loudly and complained about the weather and the men whispering cat calls in the 13th arrondissement. The bartender, a matronly-looking woman eyed us and complimented us free drinks from time to time. The wood counter was discolored from too many years of wiping, but it still looked greasy.
He interjected and told me that my incessant complaining about the italian government was tiresome, and that I should learn to mind my manners. He called me young and irreverent, his voice full of disdain, as if about to hurl. As I talked, he got more and more agitated, and interrupted me more often, until the only voice heard was his. Ricardo, the monarchist, complained about my outfit and my hairstyle. He wondered what kind of education they were imparting upon me, and I am pretty sure he called me stupid, although I didn't understand most of his insults. After a while, he asked me what I was doing.
“Waiting for Alba”, I said. He must have noticed something in my voice. I had changed, of course. I was no longer Manuela, because I had made her up to match his Ricardo. I really was waiting for Alba, but I didn't mind the weather or the wait.
“Who's Alba?” His eyebrows unfurrowed and his mustache didn't seem so abrasive anymore.
“She's a person I want to be in love with.” I said. I peaked his interest, the possibility of a homosexual relationship? A masculinized woman?
“Love is too much work” he declared, a bit too quick.
“True, but what else is there but waiting to die otherwise?” I prodded, half-believing what I was saying.
He didn't bite, he lowered his head. I twisted my mouth and felt guilty for a moment, but I didn't say anything.
The bartender saved us, and she asked: “Monsieur, tell us about the woods at home”. He was a patron, apparently.
He, Ricardo, Alvaro, or Fernando, started to tell a story about walking in the woods. Those woods looked like the ones near the beach in Uruguay, like the Bois de Boulogne, like the ones behind the Deerfield river. It wasn't a forest he had ever seen, but trees are trees are trees everywhere. Dark and green. His soul was in shards, he lost track of who he was walking next to in those woods. He talked about men and gods, about mystery and dreams, and his gods were mine, and his voice, soft and feminine, sounded eerily familiar. The way he smoked cigarette after cigarette, the way his drink moistened his mustache every time his arm raised to pour some more wine into his mouth. I had seen this movie before.
His words had been living with me for a while before he said them out loud. Once he said them, I already knew their meaning. My ears made those words real. I was sure I was listening to myself. I was sure no one else could hear them. But I mostly peered into his little black eyes, introspect. Will he ever step out of there? Is there an actual person inside of there or just a mirror, dark shiny surfaces?
Alba came in through the door and smiled. Her eyes are blue and clear. Her skin is wet from the rain.
“How are you?” she asked in broken English, but she didn't really want to know. I didn't want to tell her.
As she demanded a screwdriver (“the shittiest vodka, please”) I turned to the mirror, checking my hair.
“Look, it was nice to talk about semiology with you” I told him, “but I always thought you were kind of an asshole”. He seemed hurt. “It's okay, I'm an asshole too”.
He smiled, he knew.
“Goodbye Fernando Pessoa”, I said wrapping my coat around Alba.
“See you later, Laura”.