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That night I found myself with a lower-than-usual tolerance for QVC porn. I paced in my room, making U’s along the foot of the bed. On the nightstand my camera was running low on batteries. There were piles of brochures and keepsakes, napkins and matchbooks. Who knew they would be treated so preciously when they left their respective assembly lines? This was my last night in Lisbon. I grabbed my coat. As I passed the man behind the front desk, I winked at him, punching my fists into my pockets and holding them close to my body so as to indicate an awareness of potential pickpockets.

I clomped down the uneven cobblestone hills. At the base of one staircase I could see electric lanterns framing the doorway of a café I had passed before. I hadn’t gone in because I knew the staff had seen me from the windows, looking overwhelmed and guidebook-dependent each morning. I walked into what I expected to be a closet, but it turned out to be a sprawling, multi-balconied bar. At night, the café traded cappuccino for hard liquor. The back porch overlooked the bridge, the river, the castles and cathedrals — the whole city. I took out a paperback book, lifted my glass of wine from the bar, and settled on the balcony, where it was getting cold enough to see my own breath.

And then they sent in the clowns. A girl in her early twenties came into the bar and sat facing me a few tables away. After we exchanged the international head nod for “You’re at the same place as I am,” she got up and sat one table closer.

Como vai?” she said in Portuguese, followed by an “English?” in English.

She must do her
training at remedial mime college
, I thought.

She had thin blond hair with fuchsia streaks that crept out from beneath a propellerless beanie. Her eyeliner made me question the clarity of the mirrors in her house. Her right arm was covered with what looked like kabbalah bracelets. I wanted to tell her that I was fairly certain that karma points were not doled out in proportion to the number of bracelets you wore. But since I could barely ask for the cheese plate, I just smiled wider instead. Si, English.

She moved closer and sat next to me. I shut my book and smiled. I couldn’t stop smiling. Not because I was thrilled at the prospect of hair and makeup tips from this woman but because it was my only means of expressing myself. I am not a professionally trained mime. My companion, on the other hand, probably was. She was wearing white gloves that stopped at her wrists. With them, she gestured at her two friends, who had just arrived at the bar. When that didn’t work, she screeched at them in high-speed Portuguese. She must do her training at remedial mime college, I thought.

A boy and a girl, not older than twenty, came over and started debating with her. My eyes bounced back and forth between them as if I was watching my second sporting event of the week. And my presence was as irrelevant to them as it had been to the tiny football players on TV. The boy was extremely animated and matched the girls sequin for sequin. Eventually, I was folded into the conversation in the usual Lisboan fashion — with the conviction that the longer one speaks Portuguese, the more apt your foreign subject is to understand it. It’s the Portuguese version of screaming English in order to better communicate. Everyone knows that works.

The three of them convened. They were an unusually good-looking bunch, even caked in makeup. I looked at the girls’ heart-shaped faces and the boy’s sloping nose. Each had a look of the purebred that many Americans find appealing, colony of mutts that we are. The boy flicked up his top hat as he leaned in to hear his female companions. I noticed the second girl was wearing two different types of shoes — a feather-covered high heel and a flat moccasin. I scanned up her legs, trying to compute how she was able to stand evenly.

I shook my head from face to face like a rotating fan. They were my sideshow freaks, and I was theirs. But they were growing frustrated with my lack of fluency. I wondered: did I speak English at the same speed they spoke Portuguese? It seemed unlikely. You know, I wanted to tell them, Portugal and Brazil may be the only hubs of your tongue in this world, but this is a language that’s out there. I mean, it’s around. The chances of there being more Portuguese to speak tomorrow are very good. No need to get it all out now.

“Wait, wait.” I flipped my book open to the blank papers at the end. I sketched a quick map of the earth, using the kind of sloppy squiggling that makes Florida the size of Italy. In the circle I drew the picture I had in my head when I came here: that of a plane going from New York to Lisbon, leaving a dotted line in its wake. It looked smaller on the page than it had in my head.

Naway Yorkah!” said the boy.

When they managed to ask me what I was doing there, I drew two equally sized figures: one a stick drawing of myself and the other a full glass of ink-colored wine. Pushing the book aside, I supplemented my sketch with the universal hand gesture for “sucking back the sauce.” They looked concerned. The boy huddled his eyebrows together. I worried that he might cry real tears, ruining the perfectly rendered one already painted on his cheekbone. On him, I imposed a backstory of his entire clown family dying in a clown car pileup. He was then raised by some unfunny guardian who drank too much and beat him with the lion-taming crop and made him work the cotton-candy mills. Now even the faintest suggestion of substance abuse takes him back to his days spinning sugar, wishing his alkie clown overlord would choke on his foam nose.

“No, no.” I drew three wineglasses in a row, circled them, and drew a hard line across the glasses.

“NOT AN AL-CO-HOL-IC,” I enunciated, dragging the pen back and forth.

Their doodle looked like an early sketch for The Scream. Overlaid with an early sketch for a three-ring orgy.

Relieved, they settled in. The girls rearranged the wire skeletons beneath their skirts. The boy brushed aside his jacket tails and relaxed. And we proceeded to play Pictionary at a third-grade level. When I ran out of margins, the second girl ran up to the bar and returned triumphantly with a fistful of fresh cocktail napkins. It’s amazing what you can glean from people by doodling. Using stick figures to represent themselves, I learned that they were in fact in clown college. Not in addition to regular school but with the specific intent of becoming professional clowns. A topic they took very seriously.

In the most elaborate doodle of the night, they asked me to join them for their dress-rehearsal clown practice. It was just down the street. There would be comedy sketches. And fire swallowing. Or maybe blow jobs, the sign language for which is practically identical. There was also a party for one of their classmates, just back from the hospital after an unfortunate altercation between a tightrope and his groin.

“Never play leapfrog with a unicorn, huh?” I asked under my breath.

They ignored me and kept drawing, interrupting each other with gobs of Portuguese. By the time they finished, their doodle looked like an early sketch for The Scream. Overlaid with an early sketch for a three-ring orgy.

“Frankly, there’s just not enough midget sodomy in this picture,” the first girl instructed the boy, “and ask yourself: is that really where cotton candy is meant to go?”

“It melts in more places than your mouth,” said the boy, defending his contribution.

For all I knew they were just discussing the weather. They rotated the paper on the table without picking it up, their row of smiling faces like telephone wires.

Would I like to see a three a.m. performance of amateur Portuguese circus clowns? Oh, no, thank you. I declined for the same reason that I had run from the man in the alley. For the same reason I flew to Lisbon to watch hours of QVC porn. The freedom of being an adult, that condition which landed me here to begin with, came with a heavy price. I was beholden to no one. My family and friends back home had flight numbers and dates, sure, but I could be absolutely anywhere. Or, as my father used to put it, “dead in a ditch on the side of the road.” As opposed to all the ditches built in the centers of roads. Point was: who were these clowns? If I went with them, I could wind up in a basement somewhere, unable to call for help in the proper language. Or, knowing Lisbon, the catacombs beneath the cellar beneath the basement.

However, with each glass of wine, our communication morphed from frustrating to liberating. The stick figures became increasingly elaborate, bordering on perverse. They went through puberty, developing scalloped breasts and generous crotchal endowments. It was enough to make you wish all human relations could be boiled down like this. We should all have to carry around paper-doll versions of ourselves, pointing to what hurts, pointing to what doesn’t. It was like those ridiculous ABC After School Specials on AIDS and child abuse and class warfare, the ones that made Degrassi High look like quality programming.

“Show me, Suzy,” said a permed and frost-tipped child psychologist. “Show me on the doll where the bad man touched you.”

And Suzy would point. And the adult in the room would nod. And Suzy’s hair would get tousled, because everything was going to be okay. She didn’t have to be afraid anymore. How nice that must be, I always thought. Not the scarred-for-life or my-stepfather-is-up-for-parole part. But the part where you could momentarily explain all your vital information with the extension of an index finger. All you have to do is point, and with the speed of a near-death montage, every issue in your life is transferred to the closest listener. For a brief moment, the brain you’ve made such a mess of is someone else’s problem. Here, you take this. I’ve been living with this model for thirty years, and I don’t know what to do with it anymore.

“Okay,” I said.

“Okay?” asked the girls in unison.

I pointed at the surrealist orgy sketch and made a walking gesture with my fingers. There’s no such thing as a stockpile of missed opportunities. You just have to trust that the world knows what it’s doing when it sends a bunch of circus freaks your way. Also, I had never seen cotton candy used like that before.

“Okay, I’ll go with you.”

For a brief moment, the brain you’ve made such a mess of is someone else’s problem.

They embraced one another and then me. We had time for one final round before clown practice, and I watched my first friend’s eyes flicker beneath her beanie bangs. A wry smile came over her face. She grabbed my book and pinched the acknowledgments page, poised to tear it out.

Si?” She looked at me.

“Go for it.” I nodded.

She clutched the pen and scribbled, blocking the others with her elbow. When she was done, she revealed a doodle-confession regarding an affair with her teacher (a stick figure with a pipe in his mouth and extra-large clown shoes). The second girl muttered something to the effect of “No, you shut up.” The first spoke in Portuguese but continued to draw at the same time, as if employing a type of sign language for my benefit. Closed Captioning for the American Tourist. She slung her arm around my shoulders, keeping me on her side as the bedlam unfolded. She felt possessive of me. I was her discovery, just as Lisbon was mine.

This, finally, was something I understood. People who have spent time in Lisbon talk about the city as if it’s theirs. The city allows for this sense of possession in a way that more heavily trafficked places do not. If you are in Lisbon in December, it is very possible to walk past a store window, knowing that it will not host another reflection for whole hours. It is possible to look out onto the river and feel that you are the only one to look at it this way for centuries. And it is possible to be minding your own business and accidentally befriend a monolingual home-wrecking lady clown and her band of merry mimes.

The boy refused to believe her. He jumped up from the table while holding down his top hat to keep it from flying off from shock. To emphasize her point, the girl decided to take things to the next dimension. With her nails, she tore around the figure representing herself and the figure representing the teacher. She circled the crotches of each person, picked them up, and rubbed them together until the paper thinned to shreds. Then she put the shreds in her mouth and swallowed the whole affair with a big gulp of wine.

The story first appeared on NERVE in 2010.