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Excerpt :The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos

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Copyright: Margaret Mascarenhas 2002 

  carlos alberto

N

The first time Carlos Alberto saw Lily, she was standing at

a honey stand on a cobblestone street in the German settlement

of Colonia Tovar, which lies hidden in the mountains

some 60 kilometers west of the capital.

 

Lily, whose name he did not know, of course, at the time

wore a white sleeveless summer dress of fine muslin that fell

beguilingly, ending in a flutter around her narrow ankles.

Her small feet were delicately bound in fl at bronze sandals

with spidery straps. Her tiny round toes, with nails varnished

in clear polish, were so alluring that he felt a desperate

and urgent desire to place them, one by one, in his

mouth.

 

A slight chill pierced the air as afternoon moved into

evening, and, tearing his gaze away from those succulent

buds, he noticed little goose bumps standing out on her thin

forearms. The sunset shone through her dress, outlining

her slender thighs, the gentle curve of her calves. It caught

wisps of her shoulder- length brown- black hair, spinning

them into shimmering threads that swirled distractedly in

the summer breeze. She was looking down, rummaging in

her white crochet handbag, her lashes making dark quarter

moons against the vanilla of her skin. Then, as she bent

lower, digging deeper in her handbag, her hair fell across her

face and it was all he could do not to reach out and brush it

back. Finding enough change for the honey vendor in the

bowels of her bag, Lily straightened before he could act on

his insane impulse, tossing back her hair and revealing a few

stray freckles on her nose.

 

(Not freckles, birthmarks, says Lily.)

 

Carlos Alberto followed Lily like a detective as she walked

along the lanes of the village, hiding behind his newspaper

when she stopped to window- shop. She made her way to the

beveled lawns of the Fritz, a middle- range inn, but more

expensive than his own, and sat down on a chaise lounge

in the shade of a tree, next to a couple who looked to be

around sixty- five years of age. The older woman was painting

a watercolor with a child’s paint set. The older man was

strumming a cuatro and serenading her. Carlos Alberto

decided these were the girl’s grandparents. He was already

making up stories about her by then, and he continued to do

so throughout the afternoon from his perch on a stone wall

in the sun.

 

So captivated was Carlos Alberto by this girl that when

he returned to his room that night, images of her continued

to fl ash through his mind. Even after several glasses of

rum, even after he fell asleep, she continued to haunt him,

appearing suddenly, unbidden, in his dreams and evaporating

just as quickly.

 

On the second day of his vacation in Colonia Tovar, he

awoke early. He shaved and dressed with lightning speed

and rushed out into the misty morning, slipping and sliding

through the damp cobblestone lanes to the grounds of the

Fritz. Perhaps, he thought, he would be able to catch sight

of her at breakfast. He found an inconspicuous corner table

in the small wood- paneled restaurant the hotel management

ran for its guests. When he ordered coffee, the waiter asked

him which room he was staying in, and he was forced to

confess that he was not a guest of the Fritz. The waiter’s face

took on a pained and offended expression.

 

“This restaurant is for guests only, Señor,” he informed

Carlos Alberto.

 

Carlos Alberto assured him that he was there to ascertain

whether this was the hotel he wanted to stay in, that the

quality of the coffee was very important to him in determining

where he would stay. From his manner, Carlos Alberto

doubted the waiter believed him — this was a family hotel,

and Carlos Alberto was clearly a young man all on his own.

It may have been the desperation in Carlos Alberto’s voice

that made the waiter decide to serve him a coffee. It was a

much more expensive coffee than one obtainable at any kiosk

in the lanes of Colonia Tovar. But it was worth it. For, a few

minutes later, Lily entered the room, even more fresh and

beautiful than he remembered. He remained with her — well

not with her, but with her in view — throughout most of the

day. It was a rather uneventful day, during which Lily made

only one foray into the town, to purchase a cuckoo clock, for

which the artisans of the colony are famous. It did occur to

him that the real cuckoo was himself, or at least that is what

his friend Ricardo would say when he returned to the city and

recounted what he had been up to. But at that moment Carlos

Alberto was ecstatic in his madness, and he could hardly wait

to fall into bed so he could dream of the girl with the brown-

black hair and rosebud toes. But again, he could not fall

asleep without the aid of plentiful cups of rum.

 

The next morning was Easter Sunday. He wanted to attend

the eight a.m. Mass at the chapel on the square because he

thought he might see his fantasy girl there and perhaps be

able to make her acquaintance. He stumbled, hungover,

from the lumpy bed at the Viejo Aleman and made his way

to the bathroom, where a leprous visage confronted him in

the mirror above the washbasin. Could this be his face? He

remembered having applied Coppertone sunblock at some

point during the previous day. Clearly, the application had

been uneven. And now his face was covered with alternately

beet red and creamy white patches. This did not bode well

for romance. He briefl y considered makeup. Certainly, he

had had enough experience with its application during his

childhood. But there would probably be no shops open on

Easter Sunday. He compromised with the Panama hat his

father had given him, pulling it down low over his forehead,

where the worst bits of seared fl esh were localized. His sisters

had always assured him that he was handsome in a roguish

way. Now he looked like a gangster, but this was a distinct

improvement over the unedited version.

 

After the Mass, the congregation spilled into the square.

Carlos Alberto was relieved to notice that the object of his

affection and heightened desire was without familial encumbrance.

He was in the process of summoning enough nerve

to approach her when he heard her cry out, her mouth making

a surprised and exquisite circle of pain. She had twisted

her ankle on the uneven cobblestones of the church square.

Carlos Alberto sprinted to her assistance, solicitously guiding

her back to her hotel, insisting that she put her weight

on him as they went. She said she didn’t know how to thank

him. He responded by saying that he was completely lost in

Colonia Tovar and didn’t know where to eat, and that if she

was feeling better by evening, perhaps she could accompany

him to a decent restaurant. To his delight, she agreed.

As soon as he had her captive in a corner booth at the restaurant

quaintly known as El pequeño Alemán, he wanted

to come clean. Without prologue, he admitted to her that

he had stalked her for three days since his arrival at Colonia

Tovar. He confessed to her how he had completely humiliated

and demeaned himself by lying and pretending to be

lost, too ignorant to fi nd a restaurant where he could get

a meal and a cup of coffee, even though there was one on

every street corner, all of which were fairly good. He said his

friend Ricardo was a third- year medical student specializing

in obstetrics who had a different woman on his arm each

month, and was his love guru. He said Ricardo had told him

that women love men who are lost, and that he had decided

he had nothing to lose. As soon as he said all this, he regretted

it; he was sure the girl would think him psychotic, or

worse, pitiful — the biggest pendejo she had ever met. He

became quiet, staring glumly into his untouched marroncito,

as if his salvation resided in a demitasse.

 

“Well, it worked,” she said simply, and began chattering

away about the first time she had visited Colonia Tovar when

she was thirteen with her school friend Irene Dos Santos. He

didn’t know it at the time, so easy was her banter, but she

told him later that whenever she is nervous, re- creating her

childhood has the salubrious effect of a tranquilizer.