João Cerqueira

Romi and Julian

It was at one of these hip-hop concerts in the summer holidays that Julian, to the thundering chorus “police kill us ioo, police kill us ioo” of rapper Kid Tuga, that he discovered Romi in the middle of the dancing throng. The gypsy girl Romi, sixteen years old, and the eldest granddaughter of the vicious Honório.

Maybe because she preferred flamenco rhythms to hip-hop beats, songs sung in Spanish, the “aiiii, aiiii, aiiii” to the “ioo,” Romi was not enjoying the concert, and instead was scanning the room. After passing her gaze over the heads of the audience several times, staring momentarily at some of the faces but not dwelling on any of them, she finally noticed that a black boy was watching her. Romi enjoyed knowing she was being looked at. Julian thought that looking was something very easy.

He was mistaken.

Then started that game similar to the children’s one, where you try to surprise your friend with an imaginary shot, with the difference that the goal here was to shoot glances without being seen, or to catch your opponent in the act of looking at you, the high point of the game, ensuring victory to the astute observer. After half an hour of shooting quick glances, sloppy dodges, and ridiculous disguises, Romi, more experienced in the warring arts of seduction, ended up surprising Julian, who was gazing wide-eyed at her. She stared fixedly back at him, forcing him to lower his face, put his hands in his pockets, and pretend he was dancing. With her shot right on target, she had won the first battle. And he had gone home with a wounded heart.

On the following day, Julian entered into careful investigations to find out the girl’s identity. He had been unable to find out who she was from his black friends, and was thus forced to question his gypsy friends.

But, as necessity is the mother of invention and inventiveness soon outweighs cowardice, Julian went up to two gypsy boys. Questioning gypsy guys about the girls in their community didn’t usually work out well, either in terms of information, or in terms of the physical integrity of the person asking. However, as they wanted information too, it was possible to start negotiating.

“I’d like to ask you something…” Julian began.
“Fire away.”
“Who was that girl with you at the concert?”
“And what do you want to know for?”
“No reason, just curious.”
“Go and be curious somewhere else.”
“Get out of here!”
“If you tell me, I’ll get you the mobile numbers of my cousins that you like.”
“Those two hot mulattos?”
“They’re the ones.”
“Tell us what she looks like.”
“She’s tall, with long hair, and she was wearing a red blouse.”
“Give us the numbers.”
“Nine two, seven seven…”
“It’s Romi, Honório’s granddaughter.”

If, on one hand, Julian was thrilled, on the other, at discovering the lineage of his muse, he understood that there was a problem.

As for Romi, it was all a lot easier and less risky as the female system of information, whatever the ethnic group, has more advanced methods, with more efficient agents and a permanently updated database. As such, all it took was to ask some friends during the concert who was the boy staring at her to know that it was Julian, cousin of the awful Pelé. Such kinship didn’t frighten her. A teenage girl who falls for a cute guy fears nothing, except putting on two hundred grams or discovering a spot on her face.

As the first, short step had been made, the problem now was to make the second one, a little longer, without breaking their legs. The rules of engagement between sexes prevented Romi from taking the initiative of introducing herself to Julian while the ineptitude of Julian hampered his courage to approach Romi. The solution was, therefore, and once again, the use of third parties. However, just as she couldn’t get any of her friends to introduce him to her, he wouldn’t dare ask the same thing of his gypsy friends. And so Julian, whenever he saw Romi, began to feel great joy, which was then transformed, by the chemical reactions of passion, into great suffering. When Romi saw Julian, she smiled and began to sway her hips, more given to the physical than to the chemical. But the weeks passed, and the deadlock continued.

The teenage boy, who at school notched up girlfriends to win bets with friends, and who even tried his luck with a trainee teacher, discovered that relations with the opposite sex are based on the paradox of the intensity of affection being inversely proportional to the ability to take the initiative. In other words, translating this logarithm of emotions, the more he liked her, the less he felt able to tell her. He didn’t imagine covering her with petals, kissing the ground she walked on, or facing dragons to save her—reveries that can also occur to a hip-hop fan. The dream of going out with her was enough. He just didn’t know how.

Little by little, Julian began to lose his grip on reality.

“Why aren’t you eating?” his aunt would ask him at mealtimes.
“I’m not hungry,” he would mumble.
“Come on, we’re going out,” his friends who appeared at his house would insist.
“I don’t feel like it,” he would tell them, showing them the door.
“I’m a coward,” he would admit to himself.

In the solitude of his darkened room, he tried to dedicate a sonnet to her, but the first verse came out sounding so silly that he immediately ripped up the sheet. Then he tried to sketch her face and ended up with something that looked more like one of the characters out of South Park—and he ripped up that sheet, too.

He then decided to predict the future, by resorting to astrology. His searches online gave him plenty of information, though not coinciding with his sign. An astrologer said that the next week would be good for undertaking projects and making dreams come true if he was committed and he persevered. Another predicted the arrival of difficulties and unexpected problems that would scupper the fulfillment of those projects and the realization of those dreams, no matter how much commitment he placed in his actions. And a third gave a mix of the two previous predictions, saying he would achieve some success, but on the other hand, suffer setbacks too. Julian thus understood that the stars weren’t going to help him.

It was at this time that he discovered he could die.

Until then, death was something that didn’t exist or, at least, was a problem other people had to deal with. Every now and then, an old person would die; he would hear news on the television of some famous or unknown person dying, but he had never thought the same thing would happen to him. For him, nothing was deader than death itself. But now, as if his grave had opened under his feet, he became aware that he could lose his life at any moment. These weren’t eschatological concerns that worried him; they weren’t concerns about knowing whether he would enjoy celestial pleasures to the sound of angels singing, or suffer the torment of hell prodded by the pitchforks of demons.

Possibilities of reward or punishment were the last things on his mind, as nothing had the slightest importance before the threat, in this world where love is covered in kisses, of never seeing Romi again.

At the same time, he stopped recognizing his body: he thought he was too thin, with skinny legs disproportionate to his torso, his arms lacking in muscles, his hands feminine, his ears wonky and his neck covered in veins. And as to his face, his discovery was even more sinister: he was frighteningly ugly. He couldn’t put his finger on the reason if someone were to ask him, unable to place the blame on any particular feature, on the color of his eyes, on the shape of his teeth, on the shaven hair, or on the combination of all these features. He didn’t need such explanations to prove the disgusting image that the mirror had begun to show him.

The worse thing, however, was when he discovered that he was unable to remember what her face looked like. The delectable moments of projecting his loved one’s face, making it appear whenever he wanted and taking it with him wherever he went — this amazing enjoyment of having her within him and being able to contemplate her whenever he wanted was suddenly interrupted by a painful loss of memory. Bringing her face to mind degenerated into the appearance of dozens of different faces, each with a vague resemblance to a given characteristic—her hair or her mouth—but each different from the rest. And the more he tried to get her back, pulling her from any point on which he could lay his hand, the more he deformed the outline, ending up envisioning another stranger. Thus, Romi evaded him in his mind too, her image proving as fleeting as her body.

This was all killing Julian. Fighting against himself, with one leg wanting to move in one direction and the other walking in the opposite, he ended up tearing himself in two.

Concerned, his aunt tried to discuss her nephew’s problem with her husband.

“Listen, he’s too thin, has dark rings under his eyes, and he never talks, maybe he’s depressed.”
“It’s all the jerking off he does.”

His uncle passed judgment without even lifting his eyes from the newspaper he was reading.

This was, therefore, a case that only Professor Kacimba could solve.

African healer, master of Voodoo, an expert in cowry-shell divination, in tarot readings, in palmistry, while also endowed with powers of telepathy, clairvoyance, and dowsing. And for this very reason, he is able to solve problems concerning health, love, impotence, work, money, and to undo the work of other healers, such as the evil eye, curses, enchantments, and other evil witchcraft.

Following a sleepless night, Julian, joining the gathering of sufferers from the neighborhood and of patients from further afield, entered his surgery, sat down, and waited his turn. To his surprise, there were more whites than blacks and gypsies waiting to see the professor. And even a man of Chinese extraction was there, sitting discreetly in a corner in socks and flip-flops. Julian counted ten people, old and young, men and women. All different and seemingly strangers, they were united by a common feeling: distress. The rough hand of suffering pinched each of their faces, deforming them; the pressure was exerted with greater intensity on their mouths, but the sum-total of this pinching was concentrated in their eyes. As such, none of them said a word or had the strength to look up.
Seeing so much pain, so much despair, Julian started to reflect that maybe his problem wasn’t that bad after all. In truth he wasn’t suffering from some incurable disease; he wasn’t in need of cash as he had never had any. He had two legs, two arms, and two eyes in his head, a voracious appetite (until a week ago, at least), and plenty of friends. Looking at these people afflicted by unknown ordeals, carrying crosses that would certainly crush him, crucified by lives that he would never have to live, he came to realize that his problem was nowhere near as bad as he had thought.

Just being in Professor Kacimba’s waiting room was proving beneficial for Julian. The flames of his humble hell didn’t go out, but their ardor became easier to deal with. A fan spinning on the ceiling must have helped too.
“What are you doing here, my child?” an old woman with an eye patch asked him. It was then that Julian almost felt ashamed to be there. Sharing that space with those people, he felt embarrassed by his presence. An imposter in a sanctuary for the wretched. Uncomfortable, he thought about leaving. But the brute force of desire violently drove out any such idea.

*

On that day, Professor Kacimba was very tired. He had already seen nineteen patients and solved some complex cases. A cheated wife had managed to get her husband to leave his lover, the lover of a married woman had been saved from being shot by the betrayed husband, a bankrupt tradesman would soon see his creditors excuse his debts, a failed football coach would go on to lead the championship, a widow had spoken with her dead husband, a bald man had felt some hairs growing on the nape of his neck, and only a gentlemen looking for the magic formula to seduce the ladies wasn’t entirely satisfied with the advice given, to start by shaving off his moustache. In brief, a day like any other in Professor Kacimba’s consulting rooms. The paranormal routine.

When it was Julian’s turn, as this was a teenager, Professor Kacimba thought that he was dealing with someone tormented by the usual problems that the rare patients of this age told him of: fights with their parents, a pregnant girlfriend, the police after them. He was astonished then when Julian only asked him for help in meeting Romi. He hadn’t hit his mother or his teacher; he wasn’t going to be a father; he didn’t want to be rich. He was just in love. Kacimba was sorry therefore for having said, “I can see in your face that you are going through great problems…but I have a solution for your case,” and the ideas hadn’t crossed his mind to summon positive energies, chant prayers in tongues, do his little dance steps, or scrub Julian with magical oils.

He listened intently to Julian’s story and offered him a tissue when the first tear appeared. Then, aware of the boy’s tragic tale, he told him stories of his own love affairs and amorous misadventures, showing him that he had been through the same thing. As he couldn’t give him the fish, he tried to teach him how to catch one.

“It’s not in my hands to make her like you, but rather in yours. Only you have this power and nobody else. Go and see her and tell her that you want to get to know her. It’s easier than you would think. And the magic will happen.”
“And then? What do I say to her?”

“Well, boy, you say the same things you’ve already said to other girls, just with more tenderness.”
“But it doesn’t work with all of them. Some of them run off; others start laughing.”
“It’ll work with this one. That I can guarantee you.”

Advised by Professor Kacimba, as soon as he got home Julian rehearsed ways of seducing Romi, forcing himself to cut down on the poetry. “Hey, how’s it going, I’d like to get to know you.” “Hi, all right, I’m Julian, and I’d like to get to know you.” “Hello, you into hip-hop? I’d like to get to know you.” Then he created imaginary dialogues on a series of themes: computer games, music, TV shows. And finally he dared to risk a kiss on his pillowcase—cotton lips and body turned into flesh. For people in love, a pillow can become the most important thing in their lives, a value they do not give to hot water bottles. He didn’t have any lustful thoughts (not thrust onto the pillow), tenderness surprising them with open arms. Because the love that awakens in teenage hearts tastes the apple but does not commit the sin.

That night he dreamed of her and when he woke he hadn’t the slightest doubt that he would seduce her in five minutes. He had a shower, put on some cologne, dressed in his best clothes, and went out to look for her. Full of beans. Now he could see her face again, playing with the image effortlessly. Giving once again into poetry he daydreamed that getting to know Romi would be as natural as breathing, as natural as the blue sky and the pale moon. It wouldn’t take long for the love affair to begin.

But the poet Julian forgot, as often happens to anyone floating in the clouds and leaping over the moon, to return to earth. Where would he find Romi? And he became aware only that he hadn’t taken into account the possibility of her not being in New Europe, after he had made three trips around the neighborhood, going in and out of cafés, studying the face of every gypsy girl he saw go by, and finally being questioned by the kiosk owner.

“Hey, are you looking for someone?”

It wasn’t the question that struck him down, but the abrupt answer he gave to himself. “She’s left; I’ll never see her again.” With the same certainty that he had had of finding her just an hour previously, now he had no doubt that she didn’t live there anymore. Like betrayed lovers, who go from the lyrical confession, “you are the love of my life” to the zoological sentence, “you are a fat cow” (or a fat pig), Julian was unable to produce any other logical conclusion other than extremes. The more unlikely, the more credible.

Heartbroken, he stopped in the middle of the road, forcing passing cars to honk so as not to send him skyward once again. The noise brought some residents to their windows, more women than men. Romi was one of them. He didn’t see her, but she felt a shiver. “What’s he doing there?” She quickly understood why. So she went to the mirror to fix herself up, let her hair down, spray perfume on her neck, neckline, and wrists, and put on her high heels. She then went to meet him.

In the meantime, a cloud let loose some drizzle.

When he saw her crossing the road and coming like an arrow right at him, the target, Julian forgot Kacimba’s advice and couldn’t remember any of the words he was going to say to her. Instead, he had to suppress the urge to run away, and the desire to hide behind the rubbish container.

“You’re looking for me, aren’t you?” Romi asked him after trapping him against a wall.

Julian, caught with his heart in the rain, still tried to make excuses. “Me? I was just going for a walk.”
But Romi didn’t let him shake his feelings to the ground. “I know full well that you like me.”
Unmasked, Julian made his first confession. “You’re pretty.”

Satisfied, Romi grabbed him by the hand and took him to the courtyard of a building away from her house.
In the sky, ardent rams pulled off the wool with which ecstasy is woven.

*

But one day, a conflict began between the blacks and the gypsies that separated them.

From then on, the neighborhood became a war zone from which the police knew to keep their distance, held to the north by the gypsies and to the south by the blacks. Getting rid of the rival ethnic group was the goal. There was sporadic shooting, started by one side or the other. Lacking in strength, neither side dared to invade enemy territory, so there was almost a truce.

Romi was prevented from leaving her zone; Julian was unable to enter hers. She was given a warning from her grandfather Honório. “Talk to that black kid again and you’ll get the strap.”

He was given some advice by his cousin Pelé. “Forget the gypsy girl, man.”

They kept in touch, in secret, through their mobiles, chat sites, and emails—in a writing system that shrugged off any rules governing syntax and semantics—but, since then, they hadn’t met up. For the time being the vigilance of Romi’s brothers and cousins, opponents of racial interbreeding and critics of female emancipation, nixed any plans they had to meet up outside the neighborhood.

Even so, between promises of love and sighs, Julian proposed ways of meeting up. One day, in the middle of the afternoon, Romi’s phone rang.

“It’s me, can you talk?”
“Make it quick.”
“I’ve had an idea.”
“What is it?”
“We’ll run away.”
“Where to?”
“We can go wherever we like.”
“Stop being an idiot, I’ve got to hang up.”
At midnight, Julian came up with new plans. “It’s me again.”
“Quick.”
“What if we buy some bulletproof vests?”
“Don’t be dumb.”
“What if we disguise ourselves?”
“As idiots?”

Frustrated, Julian once again sought refuge in his bedroom and tried once again to compose poems and to draw Romi, this time, her whole body—exaggerating the size of her chest a little. He thus ended up once again filling the bin with crumpled up pieces of paper. And when he tried to get help from Professor Kacimba, he advised him to have patience and to keep quiet if he wanted to stay alive.

*

Months later blacks and gypsies, counseled by Kacimba, agreed to have a reconciliation party.

Even there, however, they sat down at separate tables, forming separate areas. Honório and Pelé raised their glasses in honor of the celebration, twenty meters away from each other. The dust, raised in this instant, interrupted the toast. And as they gulped down their drinks, they were left with an aftertaste of the earth in their mouths.
In each of these racial enclaves, there were loud voices, laughter, drinking, and eating, the like you would expect at a festive event. In excess.

Far from the party, Romi and Julian, burning coals much hotter than those of the steak grill and seasoned with the spices that only penetrate the flesh of teenagers, were eating as if swallowing medicine. Having failed as yet to exchange a single word, even though the messages originating from their eyes and telegraphed by their eyelashes had managed to compose a series of love declarations, they were waiting for the crowds to stop stuffing themselves, and for the dance to begin. But deep are the stomachs of people when food is aplenty.

But, as soon as the first bars of the music, two gypsy girls burst onto the stage, shaking their arms and hips, waving their hair and fluttering their eyelashes, and there was no one who could resist the lustful temptation of flamenco.

The party was a success. And the flow of blacks, gypsies, and whites mixed the choppy estuary of the dance floor to such an extent that nobody would be surprised to find Romi and Julian pinned to each other. She prancing gracefully, he totally unhinged. A perfect pair. But the party was about to end.

A blood-colored full moon was rising on the horizon.

*

Nobody knew how it all began.

Some said it was a black man who pushed a gypsy, others were certain it was gypsy who stood on the foot of a black man, some said they saw two blacks groping three gypsy women. Others countered that it was three gypsies groping two black guys while someone asserted having seen a black and gypsy kissing.

But, the black box of the reconciliation banquet was never found. And if it had been, nobody would have been able to decipher its recordings.

When the police arrived, the shooting forced them to keep their distance for almost an hour. They formed a barrier to stop anyone from entering the party.  Screams and moans opened the gap through which the frenzied rush of women and children passed. They couldn’t untangle the blacks, the gypsies, or the whites, because besides the blood and the earth spotting their faces and plastering their hair, they now all belonged to that human species that horror carves and standardizes.

There was no man or boy among the fugitives, as in the neighborhood men never run away and are afraid of nothing.
Suddenly the silence fell.

The last shot fired out, to which no one replied; in its place, a tension remained between the police officers that the roar of armed fire had kept dormant. A bubble blown from hell hung above their heads. Not a word was spoken lest it burst.

They advanced in silence, like spectators making their way to a hanging until they reached the site of the neighborhood residents’ reconciliation party.

Then the bubble popped.

The survivors were crawling under the tables, bodies were still writhing, and many dead. The sardines were now swimming in puddles of blood. The police officers were also unable to associate the bodies with ethnic backgrounds because, thanks to God, there are massacres to show that all men are equal.

The dogs licked the injured, wept for the dead, and growled at them. But there had been enough violence, even for the Pit Bulls and the Rottweilers.

The reconciliation between the blacks and the gypsies had finally happened: as proof, the body of Julian was found embracing that of Romi.

***

João Cerqueira-LIVROJoão Cerqueira has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto. He is the author of eight books. The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Best Book Awards 2013 and several prestigious awards. The Second Coming of Jesus won the silver medal in the 2015 Latino Book Award. His short story, “A house in Europe,” received an honorable mention in the Glimmer Train 2015 Short Fiction Contest. His works are published in Ragazine, Bright Lights Film, Modern Times Magazine, and many others.

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