Story — From the July 2015 issue

One Day Less

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I doubt that death will come. Death?

Could it be that the days, so long, will end?

That’s how I daydream, calm, quiet. Could it be that death is a bluff? A trick of life? Is it persecution?

And that’s how it is.

The day had begun at four in the morning, she’d always risen early, immediately finding the flask of coffee in the little pantry. She drank a lukewarm cup and was about to leave it for Augusta to wash, when she remembered that old Augusta had asked for a month off to see her son.

Illustration by Danijel Žeželj

Illustration by Danijel Žeželj

She wasn’t feeling up to the long day ahead: no appointments, no chores, neither joys nor sorrows. She sat down, then, in her oldest bathrobe, since she never expected any visitors. But being so badly dressed — in a robe belonging to her late mother — didn’t please her. She got up and put on the silk pajamas with blue and white polka dots that Augusta had given her on her last birthday. That was a big improvement. And things improved still more when she sat in the armchair that had been recently reupholstered in violet (Augusta’s taste) and lit her first cigarette of the day. It was an expensive brand, with that blond tobacco, a long, slim cigarillo, meant for someone of a social class that happened not to be hers. For that matter, she just happened not to be a lot of things. And she’d just happened to be born.

And then?

Then.

Then.

Well anyway.

That’s how it is.

Isn’t it?

Well, anyway well it suddenly became clear: well anyway well that’s how it is. Augusta had told her things would get better later on. That’s how it is had already arrived from that’s how it was.

She remembered the newspaper that she got delivered to her front door. She went over there a bit excited, you never know what you’re going to read, whether the minister of Indochina will kill himself or the lover threatened by his fiancée’s father will end up getting married.

But the newspaper wasn’t there: that rascal of a neighbor, her enemy, must have already taken it with him. It was a constant struggle to see who first got to the newspaper that, nonetheless, had her name clearly printed on it: Margarida Flores. Along with her address. Whenever she absentmindedly saw her name written, she recalled her primary-school nickname: Margarida Flores de Enterro. Why didn’t anyone think to call her Margarida Flores de Jardim? Because things simply were not on her side. She had a silly thought: even her little face was on its side. At an angle. She didn’t even wonder whether she was pretty or ugly. She was obvious.

Then.

Then she didn’t have money issues.

Then there was the phone. Would she call someone? But whenever she called someone she had the distinct impression that she was bothering them. For instance, interrupting a sexual embrace. Or else she was annoying because she had nothing to say.

And what if someone called her? She’d have to contain the joyful tremor in her voice at someone finally calling her. She imagined this:

“Ring-ring-ring.”

“Hello? Yes?”

“Is this Margarida Flores de Jardim?”

Faced with such a suave male voice, she’d answer:

“Margarida Flores de Bosques Floridos!”

And the melodious voice would ask her to afternoon tea at the Confeitaria Colombo. Just in time she remembered that men these days ask you not to tea and toast but for a drink. Which would already complicate things: for a drink you definitely had to be dressed more boldly, more mysteriously, more distinctively, more . . . She wasn’t very distinctive. And she made people a little uncomfortable, not a lot.

And, besides, the phone didn’t ring.

Then. She was what she saw when she saw herself in the mirror. She rarely ever saw herself in the mirror, as if she already knew herself too well. And she ate too much. She was fat and her fat was extremely pale and flabby.

Then she decided to arrange her underwear and bra drawer: she was just the sort who arranged underwear and bra drawers, the delicate task gave her a sense of well-being. And if she were married, her husband would have a row of ties perfectly in order, by color, or by . . . By whatever. Since there’s always something to guide you and your arranging. As for herself, she was guided by the fact that she wasn’t married, that she’d had the same maid since birth, that she was a thirty-year-old woman, who wore just a touch of lipstick, drab clothing . . . and what else? She quickly avoided the “what else” because that question would make her fall into a very self-centered and ungrateful feeling: she’d feel lonely, which was a sin because whoever has God is never alone. She had God, since wasn’t that the only thing she had? Besides Augusta.

So she went to take a bath, which gave her such pleasure that she couldn’t help wondering what other bodily pleasures might be like. Being a virgin at the age of thirty, there was nothing for it, unless she got raped by a hoodlum. Once her bath and her thinking were over, talcum powder, talcum powder, lots of talcum powder. And tons and tons of deodorant: she doubted anyone in Rio de Janeiro smelled less than she did. She might be the most odorless of creatures. And she emerged from the bathroom, so to speak, in a light minuet.

Then.

Then she saw to her great satisfaction, on the kitchen clock, that it was already eleven . . . How time had flown since four in the morning. What a gift for time to pass. As she was warming the pale, flabular chicken from dinner, she turned on the radio and caught a man in the middle of a thought: “flute and guitar” . . . the man said, and suddenly she couldn’t stand it and turned the radio off. As if “flute and guitar” were in fact her secret, longed-for, and unattainable way of being. She mustered her courage and said very softly: flute and guitar.

Once the radio and above all her thinking were turned off, the rooms sank into a silence: as if someone somewhere had just died and . . . But fortunately there was the noise of the pan warming the pieces of chicken that, who knew, might be gaining some color and flavor. She started eating. But immediately realized her mistake: because she’d taken the chicken out of the fridge and only warmed it slightly, there were parts where the fat was gelatinous and cold, and others where it was burned and dried out.

Yes.

And for dessert? She reheated a little of her breakfast and seasoned it with bitter sweetener so she’d never gain weight. She would take great pride in being practically emaciated.

Then.

She remembered apropos of nothing that millions of people were starving, in her country and elsewhere. She felt distress every time she ate.

Then.

Then! How had she forgotten about television? Ah, without Augusta she forgot everything. She turned it on, full of hope. But at that hour they were showing only old westerns constantly interrupted by commercials for onions, maxi pads, red-currant syrup that must be tasty but fattening. She sat there staring. She decided to light a cigarette. That would improve everything since it made her into a painting at an exhibition: Woman Smoking in Front of Television. It was only after a long while that she realized she wasn’t even watching television and was just wasting electricity. She switched it off with relief.

Then.

Then?

Then she decided to read old magazines, something she hadn’t done in a while. They had been piled up in her mother’s room, ever since her death. But they were a bit too dated, some from back when her mother had been single, the fashions were different, all the men had mustaches, ads for girdles to perfect your waistline. And in particular all the men had mustaches. She lost her enthusiasm, once more lacking the nerve to throw them out because they’d been her mother’s.

Then.

Yes and then?

Then she went to boil some water for tea, still not forgetting that the phone wasn’t ringing. If only she had co-workers, but she didn’t have a job: the inheritance from her father and mother covered her few expenses. Anyway she didn’t have nice handwriting and thought they didn’t accept applicants without nice handwriting.

She drank the boiling-hot tea, chewing small pieces of dry toast that scratched her gums. They’d be better with a little butter. But, of course, butter was fattening, besides raising your cholesterol, whatever that modern term meant.

Just as her teeth were tearing into the third piece of toast — she usually counted things, due to a certain obsession with order, one that was ultimately innocuous and even amusing — just as she was about to eat the third piece of toast . . . it happened! I swear, she said to herself, I swear I heard the phone ring. She spit out the bite from the third piece of toast onto the tablecloth and, so as not to give the impression that she was impatient or needy, she let it ring four times, and each time was a sharp pang in her heart because what if they hung up thinking no one was home! At this terrifying thought she suddenly lunged for that fourth ring and managed to say in a rather offhand voice:

“Hello . . . ”

“If you please,” said the female voice that must have been over eighty, judging by its drawn-out hoarseness, “could you please call Flávia to the receiver” — no one said “receiver” anymore — “for me? My name is Constanca.”

“Madame Constanca, I regret to inform you that there’s no one in this house by the name of Flávia, I know Flávia’s a very romantic name, but the thing is, there aren’t any here, so what can I do?” she said with a certain despair due to Madame Constanca’s commanding voice.

“But isn’t this General Isidro Street?”

That made matters worse.

“Yes, it is, but which phone number did you ask the operator for? Which? Mine? But I assure you that I have lived here for exactly thirty years, since birth, and there’s never been any young lady named Flávia!”

“Young lady, my foot, Flávia’s a year older than me and if she’s lying about her age that’s her problem!”

“Maybe she’s not lying about her age, who knows, Madame Constanca.”

“If she’s lying about it, that’s fine with me, but at least do me a favor and tell her I’m waiting on the receiver for her and to hurry up!”

“I . . . I . . . I’ve been trying to tell you that our family was the first and only ever to live in this little house and I assure you, I swear to God, that no Senhora Flávia ever lived here, and I’m not saying that Senhora Flávia doesn’t exist, but here, ma’am, here — she does not e-x-i-s-t . . . ”

“Now stop being rude, you hussy! By the way, what’s your name?”

“Margarida Flores do Jardim.”

“Why? Are there flowers in your garden?”

“Ha, ha, ha, you’ve got a sense of humor, ma’am! No, there aren’t any flowers in my garden but I just have a flowery name.”

“And does that do you any good?”

Silence.

“Well, does it or doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know what to say because I’ve never thought about it before. I can only answer questions I’ve already thought about.”

“Then make a little effort to imagine the name Flávia and I bet you’ll find the answer.”

“I’m imagining, I’m imagining . . . Aha, I’ve got it! The name of my childhood nanny is Augusta!”

“But, sweet child of the Lord, I’m running out of patience, it’s not your childhood nanny I want, it’s Flá-vi-a!”

“I don’t want to seem rude, but my mother always said that pushy people are impolite, sorry!”

“Impolite? Me? Brought up in Paris and London? Do you at least speak French or English, so we can practice a little?”

“I only speak the language of Brazil, ma’am, and I believe it’s time for you to hang up because my tea must be cold by now.”

“Tea at three in the afternoon? It’s quite clear you don’t have the least bit of class, and here I thought you might have studied in England and would at least know what time people have tea!”

“The tea is because I had nothing to do . . . Madame Constanca. And now I beg you in the name of God not to torture me any longer, I’m begging you on my knees to hang up so I can finish having my Brazilian tea.”

“All right, but there’s no need to whine, Dona Flores, my sole and absolute intention was to speak to Flávia to invite her over for a little game of bridge. Ah! I’ve got an idea! Since Flávia’s out, why don’t you come over for a couple rounds of low-stakes cards? Hm? How about it? Aren’t you tempted? And how about entertaining a lady of a certain age?”

“My God, I don’t know how to play any games.”

“But how can that be!?”

“I just don’t. That’s how.”

“And to what do you owe this lapse in your upbringing?”

“My father was strict: in his house the vice of card-playing was never allowed.”

“Your father, your mother, and Augusta were very old-fashioned, if I may say so, and I think that . . . ”

“No! You may not! And now I’m the one hanging up, beg your pardon, Madame.”

Wiping her eyes, she felt relieved for a moment and had an idea so novel it didn’t even seem like her own: it seemed demonic, like the lady’s ideas . . . It was to take the phone off the hook so that, should Madame Constanca be as constant as her name, she wouldn’t call back for that miserable Flávia. She blew her nose. Ah, if it weren’t for her manners, what she would have said to that Constanca woman! She was already regretting everything she hadn’t said because of her manners.

Yes. The tea was cold.

And tasting distinctly of sweetener. The third little piece of toast spit out onto the tablecloth. The afternoon ruined. Or the day ruined? Or her life ruined? Never had she stopped to consider whether or not she was happy. So, instead of tea, she ate a slightly tart banana.

Then.

Then. Then it was four o’clock.

Then five.

Six.

Seven: dinnertime!

She would have liked to eat something else and not yesterday’s chicken but she’d been taught not to waste food. She ate a dried-out thigh along with the little toasts. Truth be told, she wasn’t hungry. She only sometimes perked up with Augusta because they’d talk and talk and eat, ah, they’d break their diets and not even gain weight! But Augusta would be gone for a month. A month is a lifetime.

Eight o’clock. She could already go to bed. She brushed her teeth for a long while, pensive. She put on a tattered, somewhat threadbare cotton nightgown, one of those nice cozy ones that her mother had made. And got into bed, under the covers.

Eyes wide open.

Eyes wide open.

Eyes wide open.

That was when she remembered the vials of sleeping pills that had been her mother’s. She remembered her father: careful, Leontina, with the dosage, one too many could be fatal. I, Leontina would answer, don’t want to leave this good life behind so soon, and I’ll take just two little pills, enough to sleep soundly and wake up all rosy for my little husband.

That’s right, thought Margarida das Flores no Jardim, to get some nice, sound sleep and wake up rosy. She went to her mother’s room, opened a drawer to the left of the big double bed — and indeed found three vials full of tablets. She was going to take two pills to start the day rosy. She didn’t have bad intentions. She went to get the pitcher and a glass. She opened one of the vials: took out two little pills. They tasted like mold and sugar. She didn’t notice the slightest bad intention in herself. But no one in the world would know. And now no one would ever be able to tell whether it happened because of some sort of imbalance or ultimately because of a great balance: glassful after glassful she swallowed each and every pill from the three big vials. But on the second vial she thought for the first time in her life: “I.” And it wasn’t merely a rehearsal: it was in fact a debut. All of her was debuting at last. And even before they ran out, she was already feeling something in her legs, better than anything she’d ever felt. She didn’t even know it was Sunday. She didn’t have the strength to go to her own room: she let herself collapse on the bed where she’d been conceived. It was one day less. Vaguely she thought: if only Augusta had left me a raspberry tart.

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