I got on the bus and saw that my seat was at the end of the aisle, next to a very pretty blonde. Typical blonde girl’s freckles under her eyes. She was wearing a black sweater and blue velvet pants. Her seat was next to the window.
I said excuse me and sat down. She said sure, and I noticed a foreign accent. After the bus got moving I pretended to look out the window, but was really staring at my beautiful foreign neighbor. The question of what country she was from remained.
I turned my head to face forward, commenting with a distracted air that it had been abnormally cold in Rio. She said she never expected temperatures below twenty degrees in Rio de Janeiro. And the wind, she added. I said yes, the wind—and looked at her looking at me. Now that I was certain of her accent, I asked, “You’re American?”
“I am,” she said.
“And this elegant Portuguese?”
“I’ve been to Brazil several times already. This time I came back with better Portuguese. I’m an archaeologist. I came to coordinate some excavations.”
“Yes, excavations to search for the possible existence of a pre-Colombian civilization that’s still practically unknown.”
“Any good leads?”
“We’ve every reason to think so.”
Her name was Susan Flemming. She had big green eyes. She told me she was traveling by land so she could get to know the interior of Brazil.
We went hours without talking. When a beautiful sunset began to take shape, something came to my lips—I don’t even know what. I did make out her response: she didn’t think so.
We remained silent for another half hour. Suddenly, she said it was getting dark. Then, running a hand through her hair, she said this time of day always devastated her. A knot in her throat that formed only as night fell.
She asked me to excuse her for confessing such personal things to a stranger. I said I was an actor, a man accustomed to the intimacies of others.
I glanced at her profile. She was now just a shadow against the moonlit night.
She picked up the blanket that was folded in the seat back in front of her. It was getting colder. I also took the blanket out from in front of me. I told her I had very little with me for warmth, just my blazer. As soon as I got to Florianópolis I was going to buy a good wool shirt. She remarked that Canada had beautiful wool shirts.
“I lost my daughter in Canada,” she said just like that—abruptly.
And she stopped, as if she’d gone too far.
“You lost your daughter in Canada?” I asked.
“She died in Canada when she was seven years old,” she replied.
Susan then paused briefly before adding, “Another reason for this trip, to forget.”
I told her I didn’t have any children. That, although I’d toyed with the idea of wanting them, the thought of having to feed and clothe someone for such a long time suffocated me. Feeding and clothing myself was enough of a problem, one I no longer expected to solve.
She laughed. I said I liked her laugh.
Then I took her hand. And we fell asleep.
We awoke to the voice of the driver telling us we had forty-five minutes to eat dinner. The bus windows glared. I crossed my arms as a sign of the cold, mentioning once again that I didn’t have much to cover up with except my blazer. Susan bent down and opened a bag she had under the seat. She took out a wool coat with a hood.
“Here, put this on, it’s what’s left of my ex-husband since we separated,” she said, chuckling.
I sat there awkwardly; said something that didn’t rise above a mumble.
“He never wore it, but I like to wrap up in it to read. Take it, I have other things to put on,” she said.
We got off the bus. The night frozen. It must have been southern São Paulo, northern Paraná.
In the restaurant bathroom I saw myself in the coat. It was red with a yellow fringe on the hood.
We sat in the back of the restaurant, which was empty. We ordered steak and fries, a bottle of wine. I said the coat actually looked good on me, kept me nice and warm. She said Peter and I had more or less the same body type.
We were both slightly embarrassed by this comment. I imagined an American a little taller than me wearing the coat. He was blond, wrapping Susan in a long embrace.
We returned to the bus. A child was sniveling. We decided that from then on, if we wanted to talk, it would have to be in whispers so we wouldn’t keep anybody from sleeping.
“Talking in whispers, like in a convent,” I observed, whispering.
“There’s a legend that tells of ancient people here in South America,” she said, also whispering.
“What does the legend say?” I asked.
“It says that speech was eliminated from their religious rites. They didn’t pray from their mouths like we do. For them the gods only appeared through the absolute surrender of the spoken word.”
“We’ve come a long way,” I said.
And we both laughed, covering our mouths with the blanket to muffle the sound.
Then we hugged. A prolonged embrace.
“Oh, this embrace,” I murmured.
“Are you a poet?” Susan inquired.
“Just an unemployed actor, at the moment living off the sale of my car,” I replied.
And we laughed some more, covering our mouths with the blanket again.
When her laughter tapered off, Susan proposed that we try to sleep. It wasn’t long before I heard her deep breaths. I couldn’t say why, but I suspected she was pretending to sleep. Would we stay together in Florianópolis? I wondered. And I fell asleep.
When I awoke, the bus was parked in front of a restaurant by the side of the highway. Susan had gotten off. It was hard to see exactly what was outside—there was a strong snowstorm.
When I got off, I felt what seemed to be frost on my skin. As I made my way to the bathroom I saw Susan leaving the restaurant by a side door.
There was a detail regarding her exit from the restaurant that I couldn’t understand: she was wearing dark glasses. In the middle of a snowstorm in the dead of night, here was this American woman in dark glasses.
I kept moving and went in to take a piss. But I couldn’t get it out of my head. I left the bathroom, paid for a mineral water at the register, and went to the counter to wait for the water. Throughout this trajectory I felt watched. Difficult to explain: a sudden chill on the nape of my neck. I looked behind me. Two men and a woman drinking coffee. Further on, an old man walking with difficulty. The girl at the cash register giving a boy some change.
I drank the mineral water. I sighed, and thought that this would pass when I got to Florianópolis. I figured the long bus ride was leaving me exhausted, seeing things.
I left the restaurant, making calculations about where we must be. “This is the border between Paraná and Santa Catarina,” I heard one girl tell another. They were coming into the restaurant, giddy from the road. Laughing and horsing around.
There were three, four buses stopped. Some passengers were sleeping inside them. A little before getting back on the bus I distractedly stumbled over a stone painted white. I stopped, wiggled my foot to see if it was hurt. No, my foot was fine.
Susan was already in her seat. Still in dark glasses. When I sat down, I could tell she was sleeping. Rather deeply, it seemed. She had a strange snore. I thought nobody else on the bus would be able to sleep with her snoring like that. It was too intense, too pathetic for anyone nearby to shut an eye.
Susan’s head fell forward. I straightened it against the headrest.
I wondered again if we’d stay together in Florianópolis. Then I thought I’d relax, maybe even have a little nap.
To my surprise, I not only had a nice snooze, but also a beautiful dream. The best part: I woke up with the dream still clear in my mind. I was a woman sitting atop some dunes. A breeze was blowing such that I could feel the heat of the shimmering sand. I was a woman from the twenties.
But unlike the films of that era, nothing was in black and white. Almost everything was a shade of gold, but with pink splotches.
I was wearing a metallic bracelet. Every time I looked at the bracelet I saw it give off flashes from the sun.
I was very hot. My dress had a plunging neckline. I slipped a hand down and touched my breast. In the distance, low on the horizon, leagues away, a man in a white suit was approaching, perhaps in a light-colored hat too, his body fluttering as he came—an effect of grains of sand moved by the wind before his image.
When I opened my eyes, the first thing I thought was to tell Susan about my dream. So I turned to the side, and saw that she had some kind of viscous substance dried into the corner of her mouth, on her chin, staining her black sweater. A dark yellow that her system had expelled overnight. It didn’t really look like vomit, but a more serious secretion.
Her mouth was open, tongue hanging out. I removed her dark glasses. Her eyes were wide, pure panic. I replaced her glasses immediately. I took Susan’s wrist, released it, had no idea what to do.
Discreetly, I covered her face. I needed to think. I looked out the window and saw a blue morning, hills full of dense vegetation. A child’s voice said we must be getting close to Florianópolis.
I leaned back in my seat. I noticed a black bag had fallen to Susan’s feet. I picked up the open bag and inside saw several packages of barbiturates, antidepressants, antipsychotics: every sort of remedy to halt the disturbed mind. The boxes were all open and empty. Some torn from top to bottom in desperation.
Susan must have taken these pills back in the restaurant where I had found it strange to see her in her dark glasses, I figured, rattled at the thought. She hadn’t wanted anyone to notice the first transformations of her eyes, hence the dark glasses. I continued to reason as though I had a moral obligation to understand her plan all the way through its outcome.
Later, when I had returned to the bus, she had already been deep into that terrible snore and was certain never to reawaken—I concluded hurriedly, so that the nightmare would soon be over.
The bus was crossing the bridge to Florianópolis.
In moments we’d pull into the station.
I waited until there weren’t any other passengers nearby before I checked on Susan’s body one last time. I pulled off the blanket and her glasses; her face remained the same: the mouth and eyes agape. I felt for her pulse, then covered up the body once again.
No doubt about it: Susan was dead. I realized that this was the second cadaver I’d encountered in fewer than forty-eight hours. The other was the one from the hotel in Copacabana.
The bus was empty. I wondered if they were already getting suspicious about how long it was taking us to get off.
It agonized me that I might be suspected of something. But it was already too late to undo my mistake. I’d spend years being dragged through the courts, facing down the sordid affairs of the justice system, too drained to believe in my own innocence.
I got up. I went slowly down the aisle, thinking about how to make myself invisible as I got off the bus. I didn’t want anybody to notice me.
I walked around the bus station for a while, not knowing what to do. It occurred to me suddenly to look for a window that was selling tickets to Porto Alegre. The next bus was leaving at midnight. It was a long time until then.
I continued wandering around the station, hoping to hit upon an idea.
I went to the bathroom. That was when, in front of the mirror, I realized I’d gotten off the bus with Susan’s ex-husband’s coat.
“With Peter’s coat,” I recalled, realizing only after I’d said it that I’d spoken aloud to the mirror.
A mustachioed man washing his hands next to me said, “What’s that?”
I told him I’d just said that it was the first time I’d been to Florianópolis.
He said he was born and raised in Florianópolis, but lived in Curitiba now. When I sensed he was going to ask where I was born and where I lived, I said I was a salesman. That I got to travel the whole country in my line of work.
“So there are salesmen who cover the whole Brazilian market?” asked the mustachioed man.
I told him I didn’t know of any others.
We left the bathroom together, the mustachioed man and I. He asked, “And Acre, for instance, have you been there?”
I assented, said goodbye, told him my bus was about to leave. I picked up my pace, leaving the mustachioed man behind.
Suddenly I stopped. I was at the front of the station bookstore. They sold a nice variety of magazines and newspapers as well. I was just going in to leaf through some things when I noticed a man in a gabardine coat behind one of the spinning postcard racks. What caught my attention were the dark glasses he was wearing, the same as Susan’s.
The man was turning the rack. I’d stopped, perturbed by his glasses.
To calm myself down I picked up a book: a best seller set during World War II. I read the first page, then looked around. The man in the dark glasses had already left the bookstore. I returned to the book, relieved.
The hero’s tale went like this: the story begins when he, a British spy, Catholic, enters a church in Paris, and in the church he thanks God for the grace of living in a time when it’s clear whom one ought to fight: the enemy.
In the next scene he’s with a lover in a hotel in Nice, raising a glass of champagne as he says, “Long live the enemy!”
I shut the book. Leaving the bookstore I saw that people in the station were avidly discussing something. Then I saw what it was all about: from the doorway of the bookstore, I could see the bus I’d gotten off a half hour before. A big crowd was gathered around. Suddenly everyone turned to a tall, bald man who’d just arrived. A newspaper reporter took a photo of the bald man, who seemed to be asking to get through the crowd.
I thought I’d better get out of there. There must be at least one reporter who’d be interested in the person who’d sat beside Susan during the journey. I walked along the station’s storefronts until I found an exit.