Maria Terreira has soft hands and a nose that looks like a ski ramp into love. Maria Terreira speaks little English and lives in a heavy building with young plaster, which looks old beside the lively main street. The floor of her apartment is covered with cold tiles, and over yellow wallpaper hang cheap paintings whose randomness brings some creativity to her clockwork life – to show that there is more in there. When friends visit on Fridays, they may all apply lipstick in Maria Terreira’s bathroom and smoke in her living room because, after the second bottle of Muscatel, she’s had enough of the subdued tones of her tick-tock life. Maria Terreira can’t part with objects that were given to her before the turn of the millennium. Her rooms are filled with heavy furniture from past lives, making her small apartment even smaller, and preventing Maria Terreira from casually walking away from it all and starting somewhere new without the heavy building and cold tiles weighing down her thoughts. Darkness and decor rule, sometimes frightening her, like experiences that don’t alter a thing. Lead nowhere and have no plausible purpose. Through which you grow neither riper nor stronger, and only reveal their imaginary fatefulness at the end, making us feel significant. Maria Terreira likes to leave room for chance because she loves everything that feels beyond her area of responsibilities. Everything that escapes her control. Men, seasons and the last blouse in just her size.
In winter, it rains through the roofs in Lisbon, and you can follow your breath from bed to eternity. You need to dress warmer inside than out, and try to write without losing your fingertips until the damn coldness stops – which isn’t actually cold but feels frostier through the cold tiles, young plaster, yellow walls and cheap paintings. Then it’s finally summer! And it’s so hot that Maria Terreira can only leave the apartment in the afternoon without having to sweat her way from one place to the next. On her way, Maria Terreira always walks on the shady side of a sun-drenched life, and at night in her fan-less apartment, she lets go of everything as she turns from her moist stomach to her still-dry back. Since Maria Terreira spends most of her time outdoors, most Portuguese apartments resemble each other in their modest interiors, and distinguish themselves in their vain exteriors. Maria Terreira usually sits in small city squares that are too small for tourists, and dwells on the overlooked trivialities of her impressions. When Maria Terreira walks past a vacant house, and gazes at its wrinkled façade up to the last balcony, she asks herself what was done, said and thought in each single apartment. And how these three words differ from each other in their truths. Maria Terreira loves to walk down a street just before the shops close, to glance at the after-work faces of the personnel, who pursue a regularity, which seems so tedious and endless, that it scares her. Maria Terreira feels the same fear when she thinks of Porto and the law studies financed by her father, or of activities that don’t change anything at all. To distract herself, she begins to count every restaurant she walks past – but not the kebab shops, because Maria Terreira thinks kebab shops are stupid. Ever since she moved to Lisbon, friends who live in her hometown say that Maria Terreira is no longer the same. She thinks that’s dumb, because the old Maria Terreira was younger, and she no longer wants to live as a world without Muscatel would expect of her. This brings her count to three true friends and 87 restaurants – minus kebab shops. And to an experience whose fatefulness reveals itself only at the end: to me.
Maria Terreira met me four days ago at a masquerade ball. The Portuguese love masks and balls, because for a 30-euro entrance fee, they can rise from the ashes like a phoenix. Of course, you don’t find the love of your life this way, because everyone has a mask and something to prove – as in real life. There, in real life, where nothing impresses but beauty, and at 27, my balls still have the say and judge the true worth of a character. There, where all have always wanted nothing but to be loved – but nowadays hope that it takes some time before someone comes along, because the emptiness of our existence can then, under certain conditions, be filled with some sense. Everything can wait! The Portuguese are always late anyway, because of traffic and because of the weather. After all, they have good excuses that we don’t have in Germany. Better late, styled and serene than just in time and spotted with sweat. For the masquerade, it didn’t matter; everything was allowed and I was in a black polo neck. Wearing it, I feel like a brain-wracking intelligence-boxer, a poor author with a rich heritage. But in truth, I just look like a football player wearing a black polo neck. Like someone who doesn’t need to think, because the pullover does it for you. Somehow also a disguise. Really! Have you ever flipped through the business section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine in a black polo neck? Have you ever crossed your legs as far as they’ll go, drunk red wine from large glasses, eaten olives and argued about the value of currency with hard cheese in your mouth in a black polo neck? Maria Terreira says one can never think enough, but please not in a black polo! At least not without laughing at yourself. Because when balance and its opposites are lost, things can quickly become too heady. You lose the fun of adventure, begin to write about seagulls and trees, and experience nothing worth putting into words.
But we are corresponding live from Maria Terreira’s bedroom, where there’s a large, ripe bed that can be mounted from three sides. Despite all the furniture, we spent the first night on an unfolded folding sofa. So tight that we were one, so tight that a piece of cloth (like a black polo neck) felt like a long-distance relationship over a bad Skype connection with time lag. Underwear, like a prison, and socks, like strangled sacks from which nothing takes root. From this day forth, we planned to spend every day together, and not let the matter sink into singularity. After deducting two consecutive days of proud waiting, there remain only 20 more days for Maria Terreira and me before she moves back to her old life. Back to her family, her fears and her horses. Maria Terreira loves horses, and I love girls who love horses. Before going to bed after a long night, Maria Terreira likes to eat, preferably a bifana, a simple sandwich made of meat and Portuguese soul, which I gladly partake of before lying beside her. Maria Terreira loves late nights and I love her long mornings. She loves that I’m tall, and I, that she’s small. She knows answers for which I pose the right questions, and we appreciate one another’s bad and not just good sides. With each passing day, we sense that we’re not who we take each other to be. But we enjoy it anyway, because the finite days supply the required magic and closure, so that we don’t have to seek them ourselves. We have to pull through all by ourselves, like the greatest names in history. For this is a story of locations and their connections. Single shreds that suddenly unite and broaden the horizon by shrinking. Becoming less, no longer standing alone, making you choose more cautiously, the more of them you see.
On the morning of her departure, Maria Terreira asked me to join her. To the door, to the train station, to Porto and to the end of her life. I also wanted to want that, but I didn’t even make it to the station because the metro rides right in front of her house. Maria Terreira remained monosyllabic most of the time, but in her farewell, she said to me in Portuguese that she had really enjoyed the time with me (I think), and in English that my heart isn’t blind but wears mirrored sunglasses, which look cool but are only there to protect from the self and the sun. But she couldn’t take them off me. When the Blue Line drove her out of my life, it became clear that she was gone like the desire she had come with. I felt miserable on my short trip home. As the door, which Maria Terreira had just opened, shut behind me, I didn’t need any of my twelve morning espressos to feel alive. I asked myself if I wanted a life that’s dependent on overly human feelings, or rather to live in freedom that feels like a greenhouse in which identical red strawberries sprout. Should I relinquish my imagination for reality? Together with her, I broke rules that I had specially set myself. With her, I wasn’t only interested in words, but also their roots. Without her, I am pervaded by thoughts and emotions that I will share with no one because of my colossal ego and cool sunglasses. Maria Terreira least of all. Because without her I have no chance against the rules that I specially set myself. Nietzsche or Sartre said that love demands that you surrender yourself to the other to flourish and decay. To get naked, and if that’s not enough, then only because you weren’t reached (he didn’t say that!).
Now, I miss Maria Terreira the most when I don’t think of her. She would have been a great girl if I hadn’t compared her to who I believed her to be. Perhaps the best I ever met outside my rose-petal-excreting imagination. A pastel de nata that doesn’t taste half as good in the best shop in town as it does in a café from which you’d never expect it. These things scare me sometimes, because Maria Terreira is beautiful from inside and out. Different, with each of her words. The one, if there were no others in the world. More than enough, if only one were enough. Can one have it all? Because I already have a broken car, a broken roof and cool sunglasses through which broken cars and broken roofs don’t matter. It’s all relative! Everything is cool and a question of reflection. Anyway, it’s 11 p.m., so for Maria Terreira and her new boyfriend it’s bedtime on Mondays and far too early to party on Fridays. I don’t want to say much about her new boyfriend, because everything I’d say would be awful. But in my imagination, he has the biggest dick, the smartest brain, and tells the most delightful jokes.
I had to leave you. For a lousy 24-hour hotel near the airport. Furnished with a huge inferiority complex and extras with extra costs. Large TV, no smoking and tap water as yellow as the sun. People come here so they can leave again soon. Not pretty, just pretty close. Breakfast is served from five to ten – the worn-out carpet leads the way. I was stuck. Left to my own devices. No longer here, but still not there. Somewhere in between with room service and Rocky 2. Loaded with thoughts, which won’t stay on topic, demand attention, or still wait at baggage claim. In a land far away, where everyone is done eating by six p.m., and taxi drivers are paid through nightlife-stained safety glass. They’re distant, on the wrong track. Their pubs reek of floorboards and spilt beer. A sweet stench that has expanded throughout the entire Commonwealth. A squandered spirit that awaits re-ignition. A hazard that lurks and lingers violently in the air. Testosterone seeking liberation. Manners feel a tad too tight and, after the third pint, speak only of fucking. Almost yodelling, like an animal on heat in a well-pressed suit. Wrapped in a thin sheath of pleasantries every morning, which is crudely overstretched. Then there’s the smug satisfaction, which necessitates special power sockets for further illumination. England maintains its ugliness well – even its most beautiful corners are somehow blemished. But beneath its cling-film-preserved tradition, there are a few foolish rules you can break. Curfews and coppers on horseback striving to defend what’s good without real guns. Every few meters lies a small pile of shit on the street, with space in between for puking on weekends. Hardly anyone smokes, but everyone likes chips and lives in stone houses that are old, and distinguished only by numbers.
I want to smash this serenity, this entire city. All its bricks and windows, its scissor-trimmed gardens, all its no-parking signs. Everything. Only the red phone boxes may remain as reminders of the good old days. Days that you now only experience on airplanes or on Mount Everest. Up, above the clouds, in heaven, where the Internet has no say because only the word of God rules there. How low can one go to get published? Crawling through pubs with retired policemen, burning five pounds for a beer, skipping stones on the beach with a hangover the next day. Happiness feels the same to all, only the path there is different for each. Some need fish and chips, after-work drinks and Manchester to win. Others have to fly away, get stuck, watch Rocky, write everything down, then fly back again to feel something, anything in their bowels besides English food. It’s as if there are two people living inside me. One works and toils, the other sits in an armchair, eats bacon with melted cheese without getting fat, watches movies, and diligently dictates what I should do and how I should feel. Like endless subtitles that comment on everything, even when you stroll silently and only speak now and then to make sure that you’re still here and not elsewhere. With your thoughts wandering to Lisbon or buried under your own notes. Thoughts that need constant attention, like a fat English kid doubled up from hunger, asking if my chest muscles have shrunk because they look so unused in this large mirror, onto which the light shines inopportunely. Or if my new Levi’s 501s aren’t cut a touch too straight and pinch the balls. There’s a pervasive pressure. A subtle fear that at some point the penis might curve around the world if people continue to masturbate with their right hand. Outrageous how far our thoughts can drift. Each of us. Me, and the oh-so-great British. With their shaved legs, made-up faces, good manners and ancient churches, in which you must remove your hat but may keep the filth in your head. A nation that’s no match for its own rules, and whips its beast until the holidays, just to unleash it in Lisbon.
Oh Lisbon, where lilacs are now in full bloom – or what I imagine lilacs to be. Something lilac-coloured. Oh Lisbon, nowhere are you as beautiful as in this airless hotel room. Nowhere as Lisbon as in Manchester. Nowhere as cloudless and bright as in my imagination, where just now a formidable sunset is underway – although it’s probably cloudy again in reality. Even in June, when the aroma of burnt sardines adorns your streets, and locals and tourists press through your alleys, like a baby determined to be born, a little too early, but at least it’s a weekend and one can sleep in. Traditional but not, you throw stone-swallowing street parties, in which old grans join in instead of complaining. A massive gathering to celebrate something, anything, without police supervision. Oh Lisbon, everyone wants to go to you, and not to my hotel room in Manchester. People who want to make something of themselves. And hope that you will undertake it for them. To release them from their overflowing ideals, so that they can bring creativity to the world and return home, bearded and sun-browned. Lisbon, you slut, by now you service everyone. In sleek, black taxis, on the way to your soul, you expose everything to anyone who wants to live the good life amongst your stones. Your shady elegance under which the commotion cools, and your biting heat that wraps around thrill-seeking necks. Your swarming metros, your dripping bifana sandwiches, after which I need to shower. Your beautiful people in beautiful outfits, who think of everything, anything one can think of, or hide when good manners fit a little too tight. Bare yourself! Stark naked, because in summer no one can bear the packaging. Forget what you wanted to wear, be like a goldfish. Without memories that cloud the congested present. The same air, the same lips through which brand-new words pass. The same clothes as in other cities. Everything just a little older, a little more stained. Adorned with memories that have grown into formulas we use to explain the world. The heart has a few more beats under its belt, and we stroll forth. Left and right a chasm, and we stagger on as if on an infinite fairground with feathery guardrails. Does it reveal an intimation or a true representation? Like impressionism, or secrets hidden behind swimwear that would perhaps reveal nothing when stripped off? Oh Lisbon, will you marry me? Me and all the words you allow me to write? I’m ready, not only to share all your attractions, but also the traffic that spreads between them. Through you, I found my way to Henry Miller and fell in love with olives. Decided to have a settled side and a patient one. Now, my future lives in your castles in the air, my dreams stream slowly through your streets and alleys towards reality.
There, deep in your core, I met a girl, whom I will only write about when feelings cool into words. When experiences are outlived and I can finish sentences without training wheels. When every word no longer weighs down every heartbeat, because everything you value is heavier, pulling you into the trap of feelings, making thoughts more cumbersome – and you can only escape once you lean back and look back on the days, instead of facing them drenched in sweat. She has eyes like ripe chestnuts and full hair that dishevels in the blink of an eye. A little like Adrian in Rocky 2, but without the cardigan. You want to lay bathing in her gaze or leap from something high into a deep sea. In cold, clear water, that’s dark and green in reality, but still frozen this summer because you can wear your straight-cut 501s well into June. I’m not afraid of the sea, but whether we can swim into the twilight, up to the deepest point and love one another carelessly like in a romance flick, remains to be seen. In the film, when someone freezes, the sun just comes up – except in the Titanic – and when someone wants to split, we cut to an ad break. Even when they fight to the bitter end, everyone knows that all will be well. We laugh, we cry and we hold on tight with both hands to our cigarettes and wine glasses. We love and we hate, but always in equal proportions. Because joy and sorrow are happily married extremes. The further apart, the more things fit in between. Two ends – like a sausage. You get more out of it, more sensations, more slices.
We almost broke up once, because we were exploding with emotions. We had bought a large, white canvas, on which we wanted to paint something together that would parallel the vision of our life together – would say that we had everything in our hands, each other’s accumulated joys. Then one of us painted past the margin of the other – a little by accident, a little on purpose. I ordered a hearty foundation at the beach café, and got properly plastered. Five hours long, just the tide, my sunburn and me. No smartphone or experiences to draw on. I decided to wait until eight, after which I would turn her name into an unknown number. The waiters came and went. The hours too. A litre of red wine later, I felt like an anvil with wings. Like an old single woman in a summer dress strolling barefoot on the edge of breaking waves on a lonely beach. Staring into space. I saw people lying on the sand, pursuing lives, which in their acclimatised imperfection, could be printed in the papers without the slightest scandal. Between them a big red lifebuoy loomed above the harmony, carrying spider webs. And I imagined that they must be finally saved. Must experience something that takes their breaths away, must endure something that couldn’t be printed in the papers. Anyways, two minutes to eight, she was standing there. Like in the movies, only that the beach bar wasn’t playing the right music and I was sun-scorched and smashed. No professional lover has ever fallen from the sky. Who wants that anyway? I want to stand before the abyss and feel the impact – but not without guardrails. To bump against them until the wreck is parked. At a pinch, I’d play the music myself, syncing the right notes to the right moments. Moments in which you feel yourself deeply, because they freeze your guts exactly where the fish and chips can’t reach, and you notice that you’re a real person with a stomach and senses. Someone who, in the face of this moment, is ready to grow as old as time, and yes to die, or at least burn your belly, because you have truly felt that nothing else fits in, shortly before bursting. As if, despite a sunburn, one would live forever. For a short blink of an eye, the present projects beyond the moment, which we would rather spend on a mattress with a view to enjoy a well-earned breather before death. A little finality here, a little sympathy there, all packed in Portuguese underwear – and your structure is erect. You want to run or explode.
We sometimes go dancing outside, as soon as the work of our feelings is done and we can no longer run or explode; drink wine from bottles until we’re there. Wherever. Without an occasion or need for celebration. Without something that would appear to others like a real happening. The whole world always stopped for us without reason. But even here, in an eternally paused life, in which cold milk and ultra-heat-treated moments flow, one must drink ample water, eat vitamins, leave time for shopping and pissing. Otherwise, you’ll explode again, even though your head is already spinning because what you only imagined before dozing off suddenly comes true. Not what you think – literary self-satisfaction would make one go blind! I mean the whole castle in the air. Built from everything that unites us and is finally inhabited through hot summers and cold winters, summoned from the acclimatised candyfloss of our thoughts. Full speed! And when it all gets too much, you go to the cinema to distract yourself with a cola. Or you write away without being dictated to by your notes: a letter without an addressee, originating from all the places where the two ripe chestnuts and I were together. Places that you need not reminisce to miss. Places you only miss if you were never there. You have to think of something when there’s nothing to forget and spring begins to fever. Oh Lisbon, everything I bear is better with her. And in you. High spirits are better, low ones too. To burn, to melt, run or explode, to kiss, with tongues or without; poor, cold and blue or to lose one’s mind in the sand in the heat. Thank you for the introduction. Without you, I would have drowned in emptiness on the bar floor, would have knocked over her glass, spat while speaking, lost her while dancing or burnt a finger while smoking. Just the last paragraph tied me up for at least two hours – with two left hands, so that nothing has a chance to turn right. With a midday break in between to stir up my loins. The post was also briefly here.
Excerpted from Konstantin Arnold, A Portuguesa. Letters from Lisboa. Libertin. (Unpublished)