Novel | «The Vivarium», by Anna Kushner
Alas Tensas shares the first chapter of "El Vivario", an unpublished novel by Anna Kushner.
1-Euphoric Students, April 25, 1974
My mother was once beautiful. All long hair and long legs and everything that would have typically been considered feminine and attractive in the era of her youth, or even today. I come face to face with her head at eye-level on the wall of a museum in Porto, where I was hoping to forget about my own life. But the past always follows me. For here is my mother before me, and next to her, for the first time that I’ve ever been able to see his face as more than a blur, is my father. That father who went off to a war that wasn’t hisand whom I have always wanted to make a close study of, analyzing the curves and contours of his life across several continents, journeys that never included me.
The photo hangs as part of a commemorative exhibit of the anniversary of the Portuguese Revolution. The caption under it reads simply, in Portuguese, “Euforia estudantil, 25 de abril de 1974”. Teresa and Humberto, my parents, nearly leap out of the frame at me and for a moment, I feel off-balance. I search around the room quickly, see the guard sitting in one corner, his eyes fixed on me, and I hold back the urge to reach out my hand and touch what appears to be my father’s rough cheek. The photo is so large that I can see the faint line of stubble there.
“Hello, father”. I say quietly, in English. Would I call him pai, in Portuguese? Or papá, in Spanish? I’ve never had to occasion to say either to him. I think of all the books, movies, music videos where characters cross arbitrary frontiers like mirrors and book pages in order to join the world on the other side. I have never wanted that to be a possibility more than I do right now. I want to press my entire body against this picture and join my parents in 1974. Be part of the raucous scene that shows my mother smiling joyously while my father’s mouth is wide open in a triumphant roar. He raises a fist in the air while his other arm is slung around my mother’s waist. Couldn’t I nestle into that space? I would whisper, I am the one that will be. Never leave me.
Everyone in the frame is in mid-march, suspended there between the crushing colonial past and the glorious future ahead. They look into the Portuguese sun that throws a halo of light around them. My mother, Teresa, wears a white, collared shirt, cinched at the waist, that is made even whiter by the reflection of the sun, and oh how she smiles. As much as I want to memorize every angle of my father’s face, the neatness of his straight row of teeth, the broad forehead and the slight wave to the hair spilling back from it, I cannot stop looking at Teresa. I have never known her to look that happy. Is it because of the miracle of April 25 or is it because of my father? Perhaps both.
And what to make of the quick beating in my own heart as I behold the most extraordinarily beautiful people I’ve ever encountered? They are mine here within the walls of this exhibit; more than the real people they represent will ever be.
I spend the rest of the afternoon in the museum, forgetting about the hours I had planned to spend at Lello bookstore or contemplating the Atlantic Ocean. I stay until the museum closes and I go out to find a meal though I have no appetite. In a restaurant full of mirrors and impeccably-dressed waiters, the kind of restaurant I would have never entered with my mother or grandparents as a child —my mother disdainful of places that boasted such elegance, my grandparents intimidated by their cost and appearance—, I nod politely to the waiter when he refills my glass of water and I take small, careful bites of my food.
I pretend I am just another Portuguese woman having a meal, alone for some reason, but not too far from home. Would that I could just pay, stand up, and walk across the plaza, my heels clicking against the little stones leading to a house full of children and relatives of all ages dropping by, all of us cocooned in the knowledge that we are exactly where we need to be and where we’ve always been.
But instead I am on a sort of vacation in my grandparents’ country, in a city they never even visited themselves. A tourist, at the end of the day, who has never studied here or worked here or ever fallen in love here. I have not experienced any significant part of my adult life in Portugal as my mother did before emigrating, and as my ancestors did before her.
There is no one to receive me anywhere after my meal in Porto. I don’t just lament that the Portuguese Revolution is over, I lament everything I have missed out on. I am a tourist in what should have been my country.
I walk to my hotel, alone. Sozinha.