Although poor, I never lacked anything as a child. I worked at a craft store with my mother until I was twenty-one years old. In this small wooden shed next to the gate to my Uncle’s house, which my father called our second home, we sold, or tried to sell, clothes for newborn babies that my mother crafted out of mine and my brother’s leftovers. She charged a third of the value of her work and the time spent in that wooden chair, by the door to our house, where she created and recreated pieces that would help us have something to eat that day. I used to value the little I had—my parents and my brother Bruno, who was eight years younger than me. The days were always the same. I woke up around seven in the morning, ran with breakfast still in my mouth to arrive at the school on time. I spent hours there, seeing the same persons every day, seven days a week. At the end of the day, I would go to our store, see how my mom was doing and help her out. I would stay there for a few hours, until we closed. Then we took the money we had obtained during the day and counted it to try and calculate if it would be enough to buy the dinner for that same day. If it was enough, then we would stop by the grocery store to buy as little as possible and go home. And that was it, every single day. Nothing was different apart from those days when my father would take us, my brother and me, to help him work at the plantations of a gentleman whom I always called “the Man Without a Voice”. No words came out of that mouth, other than to greet us. He lived in a big house with a fancy roof, expensive big walls, furniture made of the finest materials possible, marble, cherry wood, gold, silverware, everything. That house was, as we often said, a dream. Maybe, compared to what I have now, it wasn’t. However, at the time, I’d think about that house at night, before I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
I’ve always sought to give my parents a better life. I wanted to see their faces relax for the first time. That never happened; with each passing day, the situation got worse. When the country’s economy slowed down, our dinners came slower, too. My father, every time we sat down to dinner during those days, remained silent. As if he had never spoken before. He would sit down at the table, serve himself with what we had on the table, rapidly eat it and then get up to drink coffee outside. I knew those were terrible days, not only from the silence, but more so from the absence of affection. Every night, when my father arrived home for dinner, I held his hands and planted kisses on them that meant to soothe his worries. But I knew that, soon after, I would end up alone at a wooden table cooling the bowl of soup that would feed me.
There was a time when my father was a happy person. He has lived the military life since he was a child. My grandfather Manuel died at 85 years old. He had spent twenty of them studying and working in the military. My father always dreamed of one day being called from the reserves to the assets and following in his father’s footsteps. Every morning, when he took us to school, and we crossed the cool garden near our home, I would hold his strong, big, firm hand, and wonder what life would be like as a military officer. I could smell the glory coming off his tidy and carefully assembled uniform of a white shirt that contrasted with the blue vest and jacket. As if it helped him hold the will of one day providing us a better future in his heart. All those who were part of the military, including Uncle Luís, Bruno’s friend’s father, knew that it would be just a matter of time before they could, as was stated in the constitution, choose an academic course, fully paid by the state, that would allow them to follow the family profession.
It was my father’s great ambition at that moment to be able to feed his entire family. Everything changed on the day that everyone who served in our village, including my father, received a state order to travel to central Africa. After arriving in Central African Republic, they would have to conduct thorough overnight searches on the border of Bangui, known as the most dangerous city in that region, and report their findings of information regarding the eminent war to Bangui’s executive board. All to try to wage a civil war that was about to happen in Central African Republic. So, why would they do it? Because the Portuguese state had many civilians in the country, and as such, they needed to be transported out of Bangui, and back to Portugal. Despite the spirit of sacrifice and commitment of the Portuguese soldiers, the government would eventually abandon them, forget about them.
Of course, I only came to know about this later. But if I had known then what I know today, I would not have let my father go on that trip.
At the age of twenty-one, I started hanging out with Bruno’s friends. A boy and two girls. Inês, who would become very important to me and another girl who, eventually moved to the big city a few days after I met her, and I never heard of again. Those friends of Bruno’s and I spent August afternoons lying on the warm ground, watching the sunrise, near the house of the neighbor who had given the cloths to my mother when she heard that I was going to be born. We all wished the same thing, to get out of that little town in order to get a better life, and so we always walked together. We used to sit quietly on the green grass, and I felt in their silence a kind of embarrassment because I was seven years older. The far wall by the square that constituted the heart of our small neighborhood was our main meeting point, and all our walks would lead there. I wanted to know all there is to know about them, and I made sure that they knew me, too.
It all started with Inês. At the age of eighteen, she showed a will, sharpened by a dream of becoming a doctor. She had tried for a few years to apply to a medical school in Lisbon, but she knew that there was little chance of her entering, due to the popularity of the program. However, she never gave up. Quite the opposite. She said that if she could not get into a university, she would do anything to make sure that she got the same level of education where she was. And that’s exactly how she progressed in her studies. She got books and notes, with all the necessary material to keep up through a friend in the capital, Catarina, who had studied in the same class as Inês at our school years before and who shared the same passion since she was a child. So even today, I believe that, because of her persistence, she could have become one of the best doctors in Lisbon.
“Come on, Ana! We’re going to be late,” exclaimed Inês, who was running toward the school, where she knew her academic future would be revealed.
I hurried as fast as I could. Pedro, on that day, was fast asleep after partying all night. And I was the second choice. I wished that one day it would change. That it would be just us. Me, not him.
“It says here you didn’t get in. I’m sorry, Inês,” I said, already with my hand over hers, when she got the results in her application form.
And that afternoon, with the help of Inês’ mother, we tried to comfort her tears of disappointment. We spent hours talking about Inês’ future and how she could still move forward. After all, it was not by chance that she had a brilliant mind and was competing to enter a college in the center of the country. I remember telling her that there was nothing more gratifying than feeling love around. She, like me, was proof of that. She had her family, Pedro, her friends, and me. Of course, she soon found a small job at a local clinic close to home, where they liked having young people around so they could learn a little more. It was there, in that small room, that she learned and the art of medicine.
Then there was Pedro, who was actually the first friend of Bruno’s I had met, always clinging to Inês. I hated him, not only for being arrogant, sassy and daring, but for the way he took for granted everything that surrounded him. When I first met him, he got up, and with the safe hand of someone who did not want to leave what he brought with him, he presented himself together with Inês. Tall with big bright eyes that analyzed everything around him.
As time went by, I realized something was wrong between them. Inês, who rarely stayed at home stopped going to the bakery, where she usually saw me every morning. One day, I heard a conversation between the neighbors gossiping about Pedro being suspicious of Inês having an affair with the baker Tiago, ten years older than her. Pedro had always made a scene of pathetic jealousy. I had no patience for Pedro’s immaturity.
After Pedro’s feats of jealousy, I always ended up comforting Inês. Maybe because I was older than them, even though she didn’t know me that well, she looked up to me as an example. She would rest her foot on the small piece of brick that protruded from the wall of my house and climb to my bedroom window. After a while, even on rainy days, I always left the window a bit open for I knew that she might appear at any moment. She would tell me the details of each fight she had with Pedro and did not contain the sadness she felt. As a recent friend, I covered her with the best blanket I had at home and sat beside her the whole night to make sure that part of the sadness disappeared. The nights ended with her lying in my bed and me lying on a blanket on the cold floor. I never minded giving up the bed, despite how little I had. Even though I knew those were difficult times for her, they were unbelievably the best for me. I knew that of the three, Inês was undoubtedly the most special to me; she stirred me in a way that I could not even describe.
Moreover, whenever I had the opportunity to have her with me, either during our morning meetings at the bakery, or the times we played cards at my house, or even our nightly chats about the arguments she had with Pedro, I would seize every moment, even if I did not understand the meaning of the feeling I had for her at the time. At one point, I looked at her like the sister I never had, because I knew that my parents were unable to afford to raise one more child. However, I liked what I felt for Inês. I’d do anything to keep her around. For that reason, I smiled inside looking at the long, bright strands of her hair that covered her soft skin and the sagged sweater she wore while resting in the small bed of my bedroom. All this would last no more than one night at a time. The next morning, she would grab her backpack and flee back into Pedro’s arms. I would be left heartbroken every time…
Pedro and I never exchanged big words, and we were only close to each other when he and Inês argued or when he stayed in my home late in the evening, playing cards with Bruno. The truth is all of his actions irritated me. Especially when he was peeping at me through the opening in the doorway, with the look of those who appreciated everything that moved. He loved a great small skirt.
I used to say I was born in the wrong family for being this way. Strong, confident, mature, and above all, mad about the chance of one day leaving that house or, more specifically, that life. I felt the air that gently chilled my skin and I wished to have more than that miserable life. I knew my parents were not to blame, but that was not enough to keep me there. I wanted to grab a backpack, run away, and feel everything that I had never felt before. Now, looking back, I realize the naivety of a girl of that age. The problem was that I was never, from the beginning, a girl of that age. I felt like I was much more than that, and it would all be reflected in my future decisions.
Today I realize that there have been times when the four of us have stepped too far and risked too much. We wanted everyone to see that we also knew how to smoke a joint or get drunk. The higher the desire, the higher the dose (or we would search for something new). No party would last long enough to make me disappear. That was what I felt back then — wanting to go and not come back. Maybe because I lived in that village, far from everything. Out of the world. Life was miles away from me. However, there was no place for dreams there, and my only goal was to reduce the number of dishes I had to wash daily.
When, at the end of the day, I sat on the couch watching a soap opera with my mother, I noticed the actresses. They were young, like me, but it didn’t even look like we were the same age. Their clothes were different; the way they talked, and even the way they acted, was different. I was watching that world, and I could not fit into it. Sometimes I felt like nothing but these soaps made sense. Those were tough times for me, the worst ones I thought I could have. My mother, of course, never knew anything. I spent all my days working at the store again, and I helped her with what I could. I always liked to test life, to lose myself in a circle of my own kind, trying to push ourselves to the limit with anything that sounded dangerous enough for us.