Red symbolizes extremes: it dresses the Pope just like it paints the Devil. The first visible color in the light spectrum, it signals passion—which is nothing more than the extremes of joy and pain.
PART 1 | White: Welcome to the Surface
1. Drink This Moment to the Last Drop
The night was an empty house. Its lights bore lone reflections, and its sounds, belated echoes of a distant thunder. Those who came in and walked out at daytime hadn’t left any marks. Now a bluish mist lingered there carrying a green smell of moss, the herald of the storm with its unseen horn.
From the pricked-up trees, leaves fell whirling around in a rain dance that mirrored Marisa’s disquiet. Cautiously, she advanced on the deserted street with a sudden knot of apprehension. Adrenaline gripped her chest like the claws of a predator. She shivered when her coat half-opened and flapped, ready to take off. Her Mary Jane shoes stamped a solitary voice on the asphalt. Clog, clog, clog…
They seemed to be saying: Stop, stop, stop… She sped up the pace.
A grayish rat with bloodshot eyes leaped from the curb and startled Marisa. She looked to the sides as she cursed herself for not taking a cab. Rushing around the corner, she followed a wide avenue in downtown São Paulo. Her steps left behind locked buildings and dormant store windows in pitch-black slumber. Marisa only stopped when she reached a quaint building with a blue-tiled façade typical of the fifties.
She rang the bell, all the while pounding one fist on the glass door. The porter recognized her and pressed a button behind a shiny cedar counter. As the door opened, Marisa nodded to the porter and quickly crossed the green marble lobby. On her face blossomed a smile he did not see.
Marisa waited for the elevator, one Mary Jane shoe tap dancing discreetly. She ascended to the fifteenth floor, where she arrived with a slight pant. In the vestibule with no ornaments, the door did not offer resistance when Marisa pushed it to sneak into the dark living room. A shy rectangle of light guided her to the hallway. She stopped before the office, caught her breath, went inside.
As Marisa advanced, the walls lined with books receded into dimness leaving behind the smell of paper and lavender polisher. The tic-tac of a pendulum clock—methodic, impatient—dotted the silence. Marisa paused in the middle of the room, the sight of Marco imprinted in her retina. All anxiety, all guilt, all fear was forgotten.
The glass shade of the lamp on the desk glowed like a jade lighthouse in the sea of shadows. Behind the green reflection, seated on a high-backed chair, he waited. His eyes, a solid brown on the brink of black, contemplated Marisa even before she entered, picturing her at the sound of each step. In its stillness Marco’s body held a torrent, denounced by the gleam in the irises and the way one hand curled on the desk’s edge. He bore a dark rather than fair complexion, meditative forehead and mouth drawn with firm lines. His straight, black hair was parted on the side, with a hint of formality that matched his gray slacks, narrow leather belt and white shirt with a loosened silk tie.
Now he rolled up his sleeves in a deliberate manner.
“You are late,” he finally said in a stern tone.
“I apologize, Master. It won’t happen again.”
“This time I’ll let it pass. In the future, however, I will not tolerate it. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Master,” she replied in a feeble voice.
“You can remove your coat.”
She obeyed, revealing what hid underneath—a short navy blue skirt, indigo T-shirt, thigh-high white socks. In that pretended school outfit, her compact build was of a woman. Feeling exposed, slightly abashed, she played with the end of the braid hanging over her shoulder. The luscious hair was straight, the same golden brown as her lowered eyes. The visage emanated the beauty and glow of her eighteen years.
“Now turn,” he commanded.
She did as he said, but was reprehended in a sharp note.
Marisa finished turning in a tense motion as he studied her. His incisive gaze paused on the interstice of naked thighs between the skirt hemline and socks. It then trailed up to the breast contours below the V collar and lingered on the lips that she nibbled. His eyes darkened; the pupils dilated. He beckoned her to move closer. Then he stood to his feet and advanced to meet her in front of the desk. Now the two were only a few inches apart.
“On second thought, I am not going to forgive this indiscipline,” he said, and now his voice almost dropped to a whisper: “Your behavior disappoints me, Marisa.”
“Master, I promise it won’t happen again.”
“Nevertheless, it already happened, Marisa. You have disregarded punctuality. What do you suggest I should do about that?”
He spoke in an affirmative tone—it became clear the answer did not matter. His gaze remained unfathomable. The well-drawn mouth, however, was pressed in a line signaling the path of his intentions.
Marisa stared at him spellbound. Voluptuousness. Uncertainty. The voluptuousness of uncertainty. Something would happen soon and she didn’t know what it was. She tingled as if hands tantalized her body in no hurry, lingering here and there… here and there… Marisa had no time to react when, without warning, he made her bend over the desk. With one hand, he held her wrists behind her back. With the other, he traced the curve of her hip, first in the front, then on the back, moving around, going up, going down. Up again. And down. Beneath the skirt. Caressing her inner thighs.
With her face on fire and chest heaving, she kept still. The slap landed on the right buttock, then on the left. Marisa clenched her teeth and suppressed a surprised gasp, which was followed by the languor of a sigh: now his fingers touched her feverish skin with the lightness of a breeze, tracing the marks as if contemplating their work. Then they followed the shape of her narrow waist, strolled on the back and twisted the braid, pulling it close to the nape of her neck.
Marisa shivered when his breath caressed her ear: “Next time I won’t be so complacent. Don’t say you weren’t warned.”
Marco released Marisa and made her turn around. He framed her face in his big hands, dark eyes sending sparks into hers, mouth hungrily inching closer and closer, until it took hers in a fervent kiss. His left hand searched for the breast over the blouse; the right one found the vertex of the thighs under the skirt. He deepened his fingers there, making her moan, devouring her moan with his tongue and teeth. He knew exactly how to touch her, in the exact measure to counter a firm move with softness. He coaxed, advanced, withdrew to make her want more.
Marisa wanted it. She wanted Marco above everything. Encircling his waist, she drew him nearer, hands sliding beneath his shirt to feel the bare skin, the well-defined muscles, the triangle of the shoulder blades. With her eyes half-closed, she drank the scent of the man and discarded the cologne’s. Marisa inhaled the air sharply as she allowed her hands to spread adrift across the strong torso, scratching the skin until they reached the fine hair on the chest… and, farther down, the navel and the zipper line.
The kiss a blaze, tongue against tongue instinctively replicating the gestures of hands, a mad spin inside the mouth consuming the entire body in successive flames that reached further and further—the body’s thirst, the body’s liqueur. Breasts pressed against the wall of the wide chest, intertwined thighs in a perfect fit. Everything was orchestrated in a sinuous synchronism: lips, tongues, fingers, hips and legs.
Slow legato. Crescendo. Staccato.
With a quiver, he lifted Marisa and sat her on the desk. He pushed aside the clothes in his way, fingers entangled in cotton and lace. Then he completely abandoned himself in her flesh. Marisa opened up to him with a fitful sigh. Her muscles molded to him, contracted around him, clenching and clenching, and he wanted more, deeper, denser, ethereal. More. In the eternity of an instant, the fused bodies pulsed with a spasm, from the core to the solar plexus, to the fingertips, to the roof of the mouth, to the vault of the sky…
They remained in each other’s arms and exchanged a long look as their heartbeat quieted.
“Happy birthday,” Marisa said, stroking his face.
“That was the best present ever.”
Smiling, they finally parted and straightened up their clothes. Marco fixed a russet strand that had broken free from her braid. Marisa pulled him closer and kissed him, still craving. She then picked up her coat from the chair.
“I have to go home, Marco.”
“So soon? I’ve prepared dinner for us.”
“Oh, what a shame.”
Frustration transpired on her countenance. It wasn’t lesser than his frustration. Marisa tried to be practical: “But it’s late, and my mom is getting increasingly suspicious of my absences. And I still need to study for the literature exam tomorrow, remember? Truth is, I shouldn’t even be here tonight, but I had to see you… I think we’re both a bit crazy, eh?”
“Yeah… I think so, love.” Now he gave half a smile. Only half. “I wouldn’t want to harm a model student like you. Let’s go, then.”
Let’s go. Neither of them moved toward the door. They inhabited a fragile crystal terrarium, a landscape within the landscape that could come crumbling down at any moment. The coat returned to the chair, and they embraced like castaways.
“On Saturday we’ll celebrate properly. I got you something, but I couldn’t bring it along because it would draw attention.” Marisa paused. She blurted out: “I can’t stand this anymore. Having to hide is just horrible. I feel like a criminal. And what have we done, after all? We didn’t kill or steal or covet the neighbor’s wife…”
“I know, Mari, I’m not happy with this either. But didn’t you say yourself that a few weeks were nothing compared to eternity and we should enjoy the present?”
“Did I say that? See, love, the problem is sometimes I don’t listen to my own advice.” She laughed with faint conviction. “I wanted you so much, and now I’m scared of what may happen.”
“Let’s be patient. It’ll soon be over.”
Marco caressed her hair with one hand while his gaze caressed all of her. His Venus. The star that brought the colors of a new day and kept surprising Marco with the familiarity radiating from her face. He had recognized it since the beginning, even though he had never seen it before. It was the face of someone he had sought for a long time. In her arms the turbulence of the past dissolved into a distant clamor. He had a partner now, and that certainty still stunned him. Marco never grew tired of gazing at her because he never grew tired of recognizing her. His partner.
Marisa relaxed for a moment as she looked into his eyes. She saw so many things in them that the mere possibility of being apart from him made her gasp for air. How could she describe everything contained in those eyes? Inside them played a music box with the melody of endless conversations, furtive escapes to eat in Arabic delis, plans to visit a valley sprinkled with quartzes that glimmered in the moonlight. And the bedroom games, as he called them, in which she discovered herself more and more—a woman.
He blinked. In that lapse, the last quartz glimmered, died away, and all vanished. Time to go. The world outside awaited with the usual reproach. She looked into Marco’s eyes once more to say goodbye to everything they contained, and pulled back at last.
“Well, I’m gonna put the wig on. I almost forgot it.”
Marisa grabbed her purse and disappeared down the hall to check herself in the bedroom mirror. She returned with her long hair hidden under a mass of false black curls: she had to wear the wig every time the two went out together. Once in the elevator, they stood side by side and shut off any eye contact until finding themselves inside his silver Lexus in the garage. At that time of night there was no traffic, and the streets flew by the car window during ten minutes that passed in ten seconds.
They reached their destination in the traditional Higienópolis neighborhood—trees of generous shade and dogs, bars and universities, a large population of Jews and seniors. Marco stopped on the corner without turning off the engine. Marisa glanced around, removed the wig, stuffed it into her purse. She exited the car and walked down the street past bored porters in their posts while Marco waited for her to get home safely. Marisa paused at a modernist building of geometrical lines emphasized in pastel hues. She discreetly waved at him and rang the bell to the porter.
An electric buzz, a click, and the door opened. Marisa entered the building with reluctance. As soon as she crossed the lobby, the door of the apartment in the back started to open. From the crack emerged the face of an old woman, then her black robe. It was Ms. Rosaura, a small and boney widow of pleasant manners and gray hair with a faint purple tinge. No one could tell, but behind her innocent appearance lived a real professional of domestic intrigue. She resembled a carrion crow croaking with a deep voice, her robe puffing out as she gesticulated, her eyes always attentive to the flicker of an unusual event.
“Marisa, darling, how have you been?” She looked over her shoulder and checked the carillon in the living room. “You’re coming home late tonight, huh?”
“Well, Ms. Rosaura, I was studying at a friend’s. You know, for college admission exams…”
Marisa gave her a polite smile and mentally traced an escape route. On one side were the stairs; on the other, the elevator and a potted flaming sword plant. If she acted fast, she could reach the elevator parked on the ground floor… or, in a bolder move, begin fencing with the flaming sword to deter her nosy neighbor.
The elderly woman stared at Marisa with determination. They studied each other, initiating a choreography that seemed meticulously rehearsed: one advanced and the other backed off, one went right while the other went left. Desperate, Marisa drew the cell phone from her purse and excused herself to take a call, all the while waving and hurrying into the elevator.
After the sliding door closed, Marisa put the dead phone back in her purse. Ms. Rosaura had been thrown off the scent—now came the worst. Marisa saw thunder shaking walls, electric discharges ricocheting on the chandeliers, lightning bolts falling on the furniture. As she reached the eighth floor, Marisa clasped the coat to her body. She already knew a storm waited for her at home.
2. Hobbits and Sexual Deviations from A to Z
“The Germans are here!”
That precise sentence shook off the rust from the Wheel of Fortune and bumped it into motion in the unstable month of August that year, triggering the events until the paths of Marisa and Marco crossed in latitude -23° 32’ 51” and longitude -46° 38’ 10” at an altitude of 2,500 feet—that is, in São Paulo, Brazil. In order to understand what the heck the Germans had to do with them, first it is necessary to meet the author of that sentence: Aécio Palamedes, the former literature teacher at the Amaral High School. A ruin of flabbiness, he was almost ninety and had become a local folk character. Despite being retired, he insisted on teaching. The old man just lingered in the school, the years went by and no one ever questioned his permanence there.
It should be noted that in his youth—a long, long, long time ago, before he even discovered his inclination for teaching—Palamedes had fought the Germans in Italy during the Second World War. That fact scarred him for life, and lately brought back memories more vivid than his cloudy present tense. During class, with a trembling hand and one pointy finger, he would get lost in digression that inexplicably circumnavigated the Parnassian poetic to call at the Battle of Monte Castello amid a pyrotechnical grenade explosion.
One morning, in the end of August, a couple of cars collided in front of the school. Hearing the loud crash, Aécio brayed, “The Germans are here!” and entrenched himself under his desk until two janitors managed to extract him one hour later.
The school administration finally released him from his duties for an indefinite period. Hired to replace him, Marco Aurélio Fares stepped into the scene three weeks later. It was a dull Thursday—the students texted and yawned with their eyes already set on the weekend—and thus it didn’t take long for the buzz to spread throughout the corridors like a shot (to use his predecessor’s favorite terminology).
“Did you see the new literature teacher, Val?” Marisa asked her friend Valentina during intermission.
“Not yet. But I’m sure I’m gonna love him. I couldn’t take another word about the Battle of Monte Castello.”
“Well, I just saw him going inside the teachers’ office. The school did the full upgrade: he’s hot,” Marisa said.
“As long as he doesn’t talk about the war nor show me grenade injuries on his foot, I’ll find him hot too,” was her friend’s reply.
Marco certainly brought a breath of fresh air to the school’s strict environment. The institution’s physical space alone spoke volumes. Built like a prison surrounded by tall walls, it bore a soul of cement. For the circulation between the three floors in the main building, there were two stairways: in the past, one reserved to the girls and the other to the boys. Decades and decades of traditionalism were ingrained in the walls and floors of the institution.
The progressive aura of the new literature teacher, paired with his privileged intellect, irradiated an irresistible brilliance there. During his very first class, nine out of ten high school girls began lusting for him. Marco was exactly twenty-nine years old and had a disconcertingly charming dimple on his square chin. Tall and well-proportioned, with charismatic eyes rimmed by black eyelashes, he played the role of a deus ex machina appearing onstage with his educational methods (and other extracurricular endowments) to save the girls from endless boredom.
There he stood on the podium, a Clark Kent with long legs and emphatic hands opening his shirt to reveal the Man of Steel with a dab of the Dark Knight’s tormented sensuality, the God of Thunder’s Olympian majesty, and… (here, each student would sigh and fill the blank with their own preferences, which could encompass anything from Johnny Depp’s smirk to a juicy bowl of strawberries with cream). In his first class, literature was reborn from the ashes of the Second World War as Marco guided the students on a journey through different eras—starting in Homer’s ancient period, when words were capitalized and strung together in manuscripts, until reaching the digital era, characterized by the atomization of language in unimaginable contractions.
“Think about how far we’ve come, from words strung together to text messaging,” Marco concluded. “How does that affect our brain and our behavior? Today everything is not only ephemeral but changes too fast. Nobody can predict what the world will be like in five years and how future technologies will affect people’s lives. Now the challenge is producing literature capable of defining our time.”
Marisa listened in fascination, soaking in his words. Her passion for books had bravely survived the massacre promoted by Palamedes and now grew stronger in that class. She gazed at Marco with gratitude. More than gratitude: enchantment. While the class fell into silence, Marisa raised her hand and spoke:
“According to your reasoning, wouldn’t indefiniteness be the very definition of our time? Literature today, as a reflex of those accelerated changes, already defines our time precisely in its difficulty to define it.” Her voice trembled imperceptibly as she felt suddenly shy before Marco. Clearing her throat, she continued: “That would be the same as omission, for example. Just like action, it also brings consequences and therefore can be considered a form of action… right?”
He smiled and thought for a second before answering. Then the bell rang announcing the end of class and several students surrounded Marco to ask questions. Marisa stood up in an impulse but refrained from approaching him and sat down again.
“Val, I think I’m in love,” Marisa joked, and for an instant she couldn’t tell if that was really a joke or if it was serious.
“Then go talk to him, Miss Constant,” Valentina encouraged her, not without a note of amusement. “The girls are like demented groupies around him. Next thing you know, they’re gonna be asking for autographs.”
“I’d rather wait till the next time. Too many people over there. It’s pathetic. Look how Camila leaps forward… There she goes… pushing past Andrea, in between Júlio and Helena… Bingo, she throws herself at the teacher.”
“Typical,” agreed Marisa with a sting of jealousy.
The following class, Marco mentioned The Lord of the Rings and piqued her interest in the books. Such a classic work deserved to be read in print, accompanied by authentic English tea served in Royal Worcester porcelain, Marisa thought. So during intermission she rushed to the school library to get the trilogy and found the first two volumes. She savored them for exactly thirteen days along with a half gallon of Earl Grey. Sunday ended with the last chapter.
To her despair, when Marisa went back for the third tome on Monday, it hadn’t been returned yet. She hurried to the city library right after the last afternoon class. There, the much sought tome was happily found. She intended to ask for it at the counter when she remembered a compendium of sexual perversions Valentina had mentioned.
Moments later Marisa requested both copies from the librarian on duty, a thin old man with thick glasses who eyed her gravely and, without a word, disappeared into a maze of bookcases. He returned with the third volume of J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy and vanished again.
Avidly, Marisa leafed through the book and was so absorbed she didn’t hear her own name being called. Someone touched her shoulder. Someone with long legs and narrow hips, broad shoulders and a gleam of onyx in the eyes. With a startle, she found Marco leaning against the counter. He looked different. In his jeans and black leather jacket, off the teacher pedestal, he seemed more accessible yet more intimidating now that he stood so close.
Her voice faltered and her heart pounded. Everything happened too quickly. He showed the rare edition of lyric poetry he was returning, a blue-cover book with yellowed pages that Marisa barely registered amid her surprise. Before Marco’s inquisitive stare, she indicated The Lord of the Rings. He grinned and asked if she was enjoying the book.
Marisa didn’t have time to answer, for the librarian emerged from the dusty shadows carrying the compendium of erotic eccentricities (black cover, bright red title) and placed it on the counter with a dry thump!
Marco’s gaze fell on the huge letters of the title: Sexual Paraphilia from A to Z. He frowned. Marisa blushed and immediately hid the compendium under The Lord of the Rings while clumsily filling the forms for both books. Marco pretended not to notice her embarrassment and resumed talking about fairies and elves. Marisa shoved the books into her handbag, and they left the library. As the two were heading in the same direction, they walked together on the busy street, and she noticed he assumed a protective attitude by staying on the outer part of the sidewalk. The teacher was a gentleman, concluded Marisa with a secretive smile.
They turned the corner and zigzagged along pedestrian streets overflowing with people and booths stuffed with colorful clothes. Under old lampposts covered in ads for jobs, sat men in vests that read “I buy gold.” At certain spots, clearings would open up where street artists performed surrounded by a curious crowd. The soundtrack kept changing, along with the artists and food smells from snack bars and restaurants. Here the aroma of cheese bread and a loud funk beat accompanying a female dancer in shorts, there a vapor of Greek barbecue and the chant of three Hare Krishnas, further down Kung Pao chicken, Andean music, pizza, samba, Portuguese pastries, African percussion…
In a given moment, Marco retained Marisa. They stood in the middle of the pedestrian whirlpool on Barão de Itapetininga Street.
“Have you noticed in Downtown there are two superimposed cities? Look,” he said, pointing up.
On the ground level sprouted the chaotic São Paulo of contradictions: siren song, well-oiled machine, pit of dirt, stage for beauty, box of surprises. In the upper floors, however, a different city came to view in a landscape of historical buildings that sheltered the heaving stores below. It was like emerging from a tank packed with fish to reach the quiet azure. Up above, the sounds silenced and time took a step back in a realm of sober balconies with iron railings, arched windows, neoclassical capitals and imposing towers. Against the sky, a centennial tree top evoked the days when São Paulo was greener.
“That’s the Peace Building from 1913, which used to host the Viennese Pastry Shop. It was the spot for the high society and the intellectuals involved in the Art Week of 1922.” Marco indicated a four-story neoclassical building with a light brown façade and ornate balconies. He then pointed to a modernist edifice opposite to it, which exhibited large V columns and a white façade of perforated blocks. “And that’s the California Gallery, an Oscar Niemeyer project from the fifties. Inside, there’s a mural by painter Cândido Portinari.”
“It’s incredible how we can walk in such a hurry and never look up,” commented Marisa as she admired the gallery. “It’s as if São Paulo were a lady from the waist up and a slut from the waist down. Can you imagine if The Lord of the Rings was set here?”
“That’s impossible. The plot would take a thousand years to advance.”
“Because of traffic.”
Both laughed and kept walking. They resumed the conversation about Tolkien’s trilogy and, when passing by a bar, Marco invited her for a cup of coffee. The two went inside a tiny, old-fashioned place like so many downtown, with dark wooden paneling and a U-shaped counter. Behind it, shelves laden with bottles containing beverages of extravagant colors and obscure provenance. The bar also offered a true Italian espresso machine, which dispatched white cups exhaling arabesques of fragrant vapor.
Marisa noticed all those things without dwelling on them. Her attention focused on what Marco was saying and, at each word, her admiration for his intellect grew (now he told that Middle Earth had actually been created to serve as a cradle for all the languages invented by Tolkien). His company gave her… contentment. Yes, she felt content, and wondered: what did that invitation for coffee mean?
Marisa couldn’t deny she was a bit nervous, but the conversation flowed with such an ease that soon her nervousness dissipated. They sat at a small table on the sidewalk and Marco ordered lemon pie with the coffee. The two of them pushed the meringue aside at the same time (too sweet) and, as they ate, talked about the upcoming college admission exams.
Playing with the end of her braid, Marisa complained about the pressure to choose a profession. She didn’t have a clue: she liked literature, dance and psychology; her mom insisted that she study law.
“Sometimes I think of Pierre Anthon, the character from Nothing by Janne Teller,” Marisa said. “He climbed a plum tree and refused to come down, stating nothing mattered. He did the math: if we live to the age of eighty and deduct all the time spent sleeping, studying, working, cleaning and taking care of our children, we’re only left with about nine years to enjoy. Then why worry so much?”
“The secret is to enjoy everything, Marisa, even the most ordinary moments. Neither the greatest joys nor the greatest sorrows last, so it’s no use getting attached to them. All things pass, right? What remains is ourselves. So balance and motivation should come from within us.”
As Marco spoke, she nodded slowly, absorbing his words. She liked what he said.
“True.” Marisa emptied her cup. “Life is constantly oscillating and we oscillate with it. Like puppets. The string of an event lifts us up and we are merry, then another string pulls us down and we fall into depression. We have no control over life. The only thing we can control is our own selves.”
“See? There you go. You’ve already answered your own question. Cultivate your inner balance so you no longer oscillate. And, if everything else fails, remember the first law of the galaxy: don’t panic.”
“Oh, it’s the line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! I love that book, Marco.”
“Me too. In that case, we both know the answer to the meaning of life and everything else, eh?” he said with a solemn expression, contradicted by the humorous note in his voice. “But seriously, don’t fall for the temptation of choosing a profession just to please your family. As Sartre once said, hell is other people. You could take a vocational test for guidance. The main thing is finding what motivates you. What’s your passion?”
You, Marisa thought, gazing into his eyes. The thought just clicked but did not surprise her. It filled instead each empty corner of her mind and of her heart. You. And overflowed. She left his eyes and began observing him from that new perspective, which was not so different from the perspective a few minutes ago, just more complete. Complex.
She observed how Marco laid his elbows on the table, projecting the strong arms toward her. Marisa got distracted at the sight of the dark hands with long fingers—while they moved, his hands showed accuracy, and in a resting position, like now, they were comforting. She imagined what their touch would be like, the warmth of those hands on her body. Maybe in a dance, slowly sliding on Marisa’s waist and back, welcoming her with a stroke from top to bottom… from top… to bottom… to top… until crowning her queen with the diadem of a caress on her hair.
Marco smiled encouragingly, kindling her imagination further—what it would be like to feel his mouth, his kiss… maybe in the bedroom, tracking every inch of her, the dress asleep on the rug while Marco awakened the female in her against the wall. The world spinning and spinning out of control…
Marisa bit her lip and tried to concentrate on the conversation. Marco offered to send her a list of professionals who would be able to help her define a vocation. He asked for her email, which she spelled out as he typed in his cell phone.
And little by little the world went back to normal.
“Be cool,” he said, dropping the phone on the table. “Once you are on the right path, the Universe will make things happen and all pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.”
There was a pause. Be cool? Marisa no longer knew what that meant. The twinges of disquiet created small scars that kept merging and spreading and covering all of her. Then she tried to ignore the disquiet and pretended everything was fine in the hope that the world would convince her of that. It didn’t.
“You’re quite mature for a seventeen-year-old, you know?” Marco said, breaking the silence.
“I just turned eighteen last month,” Marisa rectified quickly, and blushed at his intent gaze.
“September.” He reflected for an instant. “So you’re a Virgo?”
“Libra. Now I only need some balance. What about you?”
“Scorpio. Maybe I could use some balance too.”
They exchanged a smile.
“Anyway,” she added, “I probably look older because I’m an only child raised among adults and books. My dad was a bookworm. He used to read stories for me as far as I can remember.”
“And you live with your parents, Marisa?”
“No, it’s just me and Mom. My dad is deceased.”
Marco nodded and said nothing. Marisa was grateful that he would spare her of the embarrassment. She hadn’t even attended the funeral. It had been six months since her father passed away, and the last time she saw him, he was perfectly well. He even joked about mosquitoes: If one bites you, my dear, don’t kill it or else ten more will show up for the burial.
The day Marisa received the news, it was a shock. The empty hours went by like a surreal dream. Her mother wouldn’t say it, but she clung to the details evoking his presence. The blue robe and the toothbrush in the bathroom. The unfinished crosswords on the desk, next to a half-empty cup with cold coffee. None of that could be touched: the objects came to a standstill, as if in wait for him to return. Then Marisa, unknowing, washed the cup and put it away, causing her mother to have a nervous breakdown…
“Hey, would you like another cup of coffee?”
It took her a few seconds to understand what Marco was saying. She acted as if trying to decide.
“Yes, please. Now tell me about yourself.”
He signaled to the passing waiter and ordered more coffee. Then he lit up a cigarette before answering. He was the third son in a family of mixed Italian and Lebanese roots, quite Brazilian at that point after three generations. His mother possessed Calabrese blood and a big personality that rivaled his father’s stubbornness. That triggered huge, sometimes even comical quarrels, but in the end they would always work things out. Marco had many aunts and uncles. His favorite, Uncle Jamil, owned three farms, where Marco and his brothers spent their vacations when they were boys. Marco had been raised in the countryside, catching blind cave fish, riding horses, and eating jabuticaba berries from the tree until he almost burst. He moved to the capital on his own at eighteen to study letters: he loved literature.
“They’re playing your song,” said Marisa, as she listened to the delicate chords coming from inside the bar.
“Bebel Gilberto’s Jabuticaba.”
And the atmosphere of the music involved them.
If you were a fruit, it would be jabuticaba…
A small sphere of soft honey the color of the night, a summer whiff to be savored under the stars.
“Jabuticaba eyes. Dark and shiny like yours.” She smiled. “What else?”
“Ah. I married a college mate, then got divorced, completed my Master studies here in São Paulo and went for my PhD in San Francisco.” He recited the list as if handing a resume, then proceeded to the current occupation and relaxed. “After I returned from the US earlier this year, I moved to an apartment close by. I like the stories the old downtown buildings tell. And I love walking to the second-hand shops to dig up classic jazz albums. Do you like jazz?”
Summer breeze in the sweet fruit, and in your gaze the stars…
The day slipped away quietly. Their cups emptied, the bar filled up and the waiter became slightly annoyed that the two wouldn’t leave. It was not summer yet, but up above, way beyond the strings of lights intersecting on the streets—the stars were glowing.
3. What’s Up With Sartre
“Four hours… thirty-one minutes… nine seconds… That is when… the world will end,” Sam muttered pensively.
“What are we gonna do?” Rachel swallowed up her own desperation.
Sam did not respond straight away. He needed to think. Massaging his temples, he kept his eyes fixed on the implacable Control Room chronometer. The countdown continued: eight seconds… seven… six…
Rachel glanced at the door.
“We better leave before the guards show up, Sam.”
“Wait a minute. I think I know how to cancel the attack.”
Sam pressed a blue key on the control panel. Then he suddenly hesitated. Right below it, there were a yellow key and a green key. Which one validated neutralization? Now that he had initiated the command sequence, if he stopped the alarm would go off.
He couldn’t fail. The fate of mankind rested on the next key.
Lean and tall, Sam had trained in martial arts for the past decade. His body translated into pure muscular mass, but all his strength was useless now. He scratched his well-trimmed beard, and his dark eyes sparked. Noticing his frustration, Rachel stared at him with a pair of eyes as perfect and blue as snips of autumn sky. Since the facial reconstruction to change her identity, she felt like a Barbie doll. She missed her old face, more asymmetric, more like herself. It was the price to stay alive, though.
“What if you tried the red key?” she risked.
“I don’t know which command it activates. I thought of the blue and green keys because the secret code mentioned jungle and sea. Now I recall it also mentioned a great sun…
As Sam and Rachel studied the keys on the black panel, the speakers built into the ceiling hummed a Mozart sonata, muffling the guard’s approach. He sneaked behind them and drew his gun…
Rachel’s scream echoed through the Control Room.
Marisa woke up with a startle and paused the film streaming on the computer screen. She had dozed off with her head on the physics text book, next to a plate holding the mortal remains of a bunch of jabuticaba berries. Dizzy, Marisa rubbed her eyes and checked the clock: almost half past ten. She reached out to turn the computer off, and then remembered…
The mouse cursor steered away from the Shutdown button and, with the eagerness of a sniffer dog, advanced through fields of folders, bypassed flowery shortcuts and trotted to the canopy of tabs in the browser. There, it finally burrowed into the inbox and gave her another startle upon finding a message from Marco Aurélio Fares to Marisa Constant.
As promised, attached is a list of recommended professionals.
This period of life can be difficult, I know, but you’ll overcome it. Here’s another phrase to inspire you. In Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre quotes Descartes: Conquer yourself rather than the world.
Now, how should she respond? Talk about writer’s block. She would begin a line, change her mind, and erase it. It had to look casual, but not that casual… Hmm. Perhaps she should deliberately include a typo to convey spontaneity. Hmm. Better not, or Marco might think she couldn’t spell. One thing was certain: she wanted to impress him.
Marisa quickly checked out Wikipedia and learned that, according to Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical system, existence preceded essence. What did it mean? People began to exist at birth and only then their essence formed, so a person had total freedom to mold their essence as they wished, through actions and thoughts. Hmm. Freedom. At last, Marisa came up with a reply that satisfied her.
Thanks a lot for the list and the words of encouragement. I really liked the quote by Sartre.
The quote you mentioned earlier, “Hell is other people,” got stuck in my head. Other people can really make our lives hell with their demands. We shouldn’t become slaves to that, but mold our essence according to our rightful freedom.
Would Marco write again? Only then it occurred to her she should have asked him something in the email, that way he would be compelled to reply. Marisa hurried to undo the sending of the message, but to no avail. Her words were already swiftly sailing through cyberspace.
Now she was wide awake…
There were only three hours left to the end of the world. Three hours. And then the Earth would be cremated with no right to a funeral wreath or memorial service. The future of the planet lay now in the hands of two improbable fugitives.
After disarming the guard and locking him in the Power House, Sam and Rachel burrowed in the tentacles of an underground tunnel complex. Suddenly, the alarm bawled with a continuous siren and the lights went out. Then an eerie silence reigned.
“They found out we’re here!” Rachel flattened herself against the wall, trying not to panic.
“They’re gonna kill us to make sure we don’t ruin their master plan. We need a place to hide,” said Sam.
He turned his cell phone on to illuminate the tunnel, and the metallic walls shimmered under the device’s cold light. As the pair advanced, the darkness kept devouring the dim clarity and regurgitating more shadows. Sam’s experienced eyes, however, located a door ahead. Taking Rachel by the hand, he rushed to it.
“Sam, where are we—”
Rachel tripped and fell onto the stone floor. She grimaced and bit her lip to avoid screaming. Tears rolled down her face.
“Are you okay?” Sam helped Rachel stand up, while she shook her head.
“I twisted my ankle… It’s really hurting. I can’t walk.”
“Hold the cell phone to shine the way.”
Rachel did as told, and Sam lifted her in his arms with ease. They reached the door and entered a weaponry storage room with piles of crates up to the ceiling. Sam found a niche in the back and carefully laid Rachel on the floor, sitting next to her.
She uttered the question he didn’t want to ask himself: “So this is how it all ends?” Her face glistened in the dim light. “We’re gonna die here like rats?”
A silence charged with meaning followed.
Sam held Rachel’s hand while more tears welled up her eyes. They were cornered. Inside the mousetrap.
In that moment, desperation fueled the mutual attraction they had felt since the beginning. The warmth of their bodies was like a balm, a reaffirmation of life in the deadly setting around them.
In the quietness of the storage room, they sought each other’s lips…
The close-up of the impending kiss froze on the screen when Marisa interrupted the film again. Her inbox tab had just highlighted incoming messages: a Facebook friend inviting her to watch a movie, a petition against the use of fur forwarded by Valentina, a dance class promotion and… yes, Marco Aurélio’s reply!
I’m happy you’re interested in Sartre. That’s a quote from No Exit. Its interpretation, however, is a bit different from what you’ve imagined.
Let’s start with a couple of basic philosophy concepts: subject and object.
The subject is that who observes. The object is the observed thing. In other words: when you look at another person, you are the subject and they are the object of your gaze. But the opposite is also true: if another person looks at you, they’re the subject and you become the object. That’s when things get tricky.
As a subject, you’re the center of your own subjective world and are able to control it. As an object, you lose control and thus your freedom of choice: you cannot control the subjective world of who’s looking at you nor can you choose how the other person sees you.
Hell is other people because it’s unsettling not to have control over what people think about us. A typical example of this would be racism, as well as prejudice in general.
Another line from No Exit illustrates this idea:
Now I’m going to smile, and my smile will sink down in your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become.
Marisa felt embarrassed for delivering such a simplistic interpretation in her previous message and decided to research the matter more extensively. While reading a long article about the existentialist theories by the French philosopher, she was introduced to the being-in-itself, the being-for-itself and (as if there weren’t already plenty) the being-for-others. Her brain, knocked out in a dark alley by a gang of physics formulas, did not stand a chance and shuffled it all… Oh-oh, she shouldn’t follow that route or she would write some larger-than-existence nonsense. Marisa decided to call Valentina for an emergency consultation.
“Check out Marco’s email that I forwarded to you, Val. Tell me what you think.”
“He has already emailed you?” asked Valentina, who was aware of their encounter at the library that afternoon. “Wait a sec. I’m gonna read the message thread… He’s repeating that hell is other people. What’s the big deal?” Her skepticism would discourage even a stony statue.
“What’s the big deal? In the last quote he’s smiling at me!”
On the other end of the connection, Marisa heard her puff… or maybe it was the TV on.
“My dear, your imagination never ceases to amaze me. Marco is talking about Sartre. There couldn’t be anything less romantic. Hellooo, do you remember Sartre, the guy who wrote Nausea?”
“I was the one who told you about that book. I tried to read it during my last vacation and couldn’t stand it.”
“That’s it, say no more. You took Nausea to read at the beach. It’s the glaring proof of your lack of discernment.”
“I was curious, is that a crime?” Marisa retorted in a resentful tone. She defended herself: “Don’t forget, later I downloaded that Gabriel Emerson book.”
“Okay, it’s all in the past. It doesn’t change a thing, though. Only you could find romance in a discussion about hell and nausea.”
Ignoring her remark, Marisa insisted—what should she reply? Desperate, she had resorted to a quote website. She found, respectively, two phrases from Nausea and one from Being and Nothingness. The first went like this: “It’s quite a job starting to love somebody.” A bit negative… The second was “I exist, that is all, and I find it nauseating.” Too dramatic… The third affirmed, “The sole power of the past lies in the future” (that one she didn’t quite understand). Marisa talked and blabbered and insisted so much Valentina interrupted her with a lament.
“Ma, please, no more. It’s past midnight, and I can’t take this talk of love, nausea and power any longer. Why don’t you lighten up? Choose some different author to quote.”
Marisa’s eyes gleamed.
“Which author, Val?”
“I don’t know. Try something from Jonathan Livingston Seagull—”
“—or The Little Prince—”
The conversation went on like that, and it would have continued for considerable time if Valentina hadn’t broken the dire cycle: “Listen, if you want to flirt with the teacher, it’s no use buttering him up with saccharine. That way you’ll only succeed in giving him diabetes. You know very well with which head men think. Be bold.”
Marisa was going to ask for a proper clarification when there was a knock on the door.
“Wait a sec, it’s my mom,” she said in a low voice. Then aloud: “Come in.”
The mother’s head popped in—pale face, brown hair tied in a bun. Her body, wrapped in a faint pink robe, followed. She leaned against the door frame with one hand on the knob, her suspicious eyes roaming the room.
It was her daughter’s territory, where she kept her secrets. All white, with sparse furniture consisting of a built-in closet, bed, nightstand, and bookshelf with a desk. That laconic whiteness, colored only by the books squeezed on shelves, offended the mother’s aesthetic sense. She glanced with instinctive hostility at the only occupant of the bare walls: a black and white poster of a shirtless Jim Morrison opening his arms above the bed.
Then the mother turned to Marisa: “I thought you were already asleep, and then I heard you—”
“I’m on the phone.” Marisa concealed her impatience, while the mother frowned and pursed her lips.
“With Valentina, is it?”
“Yeah. I have a question for her before finishing a physics exercise.”
The mother looked at the book on the desk, made an analytical pause and appeared to be convinced. The muscles on her face relaxed, although uneven lines still showed on her forehead, which remained slightly creased.
“I’m going to bed. I don’t know why, I feel so tired today.” She cast another glimpse at the room, as if expecting to catch a silhouette hidden behind the curtains. “Good night.”
The door closed. Marisa waited for a moment and resumed her consultation: “Bol—?”
The door reopened, this time at half capacity, and the mother squeezed her head through the gap.
“Before you go to sleep, take that plate to the kitchen and throw the leftovers in the bin so not to attract bugs,” she instructed like a general, indicating the jabuticaba skins. Then her tone mellowed: “If you’re hungry, I just baked some bread for tomorrow.”
“I will, and thanks.”
The mother retreated with a nod. Marisa listened to her footsteps trailing off in the hallway and concluded that the night watch was complete.
“Bold?” Marisa repeated anxiously to Valentina.
“Yeah.” She yawned on the other end. “You pick a suggestive quote and go straight to the point, no detours.”
Boldness was not one of the main traits in Marisa’s personality—at least, not that sort of boldness exhibited by her classmate Camila, with her cleavage waving at all men that passed by. Still, Marisa researched other quotes by Sartre and eventually found one that seemed viable. She wrote a short message (straight to the point), took a deep breath and sent it.
Minutes later, she received a text message from Valentina.
On a second thought, don’t send anything compromising. If the teacher doesn’t like it, you’ll find yourself in a tight situation. Now I’m going to bed. Hugs, Val.
Her blood pressure plummeted, and Marisa felt like the most inadequate of all creatures. She thought of a cheap hotel with a sad bathroom disguised as a bedroom: the porcelain fixtures replaced by third-rate furniture, a thin layer of paint on the tiles, and a reminiscent faucet by the bed beside a moldy painting from the dollar store… Her hands grew sticky, her blood turned into cold water gagging in creaky pipes. That was what she got for going against her own nature. She wasn’t bold. Why hadn’t she just sent a quote about the being-in-itself or something? Oh, no, she had to listen to crazy Valentina and send that quote…
Marisa hurried back to her mailbox and, in utter distress, tried to cancel the message.
Of course she didn’t succeed.
If you liked this sample, then RED is right up your alley. The story is just beginning and will take you to amazing places—in Brazil, the US, and within you. Brace yourself: it’s a path full of surprises.