I submitted the following story to the annual short story competition held by the Rota das Letras, AKA the Macau Literary Festival, at the end of 2016 or early 2017. Obviously, it wasn't selected. I've been sitting on it for a while, thinking I might submit it elsewhere, but that ain't gonna happen, so here you go, dear readers. I've got another one that wasn't selected that I'll probably put up soon as well.
Enjoy, and thanks for reading.
Nights Like These
Most evenings, Luís Gonzaga Gomes is too exhausted from a day divided between the Liceu, the library, the Leal Senado, or a half-dozen other organizations to do anything when he gets home, other than eat supper, listen to a record, and smoke a cigarette or two before putting in another few hours' work revising lessons, answering letters, writing articles, and reading.
But there are nights like these, when he lights the last of his cigarettes and thanks God not only for tobacco, but for running out of it, as it will force him to make a detour on the way home to buy more. Doing so will give him the opportunity to shake off the loneliness that haunts him from time to time, when he's surrounded by too many books and too much silence.
This loneliness, awful as it can be, isn't enough to drive him to despair, though it is discomfiting and gets in the way of his work. It took him a long time to learn to differentiate loneliness from solitude, and to figure out how to combat it, but now when the spectre of loneliness looms he stops what he's doing in favor of recreation, usually in the form of a long walk. If it's not too dark, he stops by the soccer pitches and hockey fields to watch others play. When there's no sport to be had or watched, he turns to his ever-growing record collection or the radio. If it's particularly late at night he sifts the static until he finds English programs from Hong Kong or tiresome propaganda from much closer. These latter broadcasts are hardly conducive to relaxation, though in their own perverse way they remind him of how fortunate he is, and how important his work is, for one of the reasons he does what he does is to remind this small sliver of the world, and hopefully that other slightly larger sliver halfway around the globe to which this one belongs, of the glories, intricacies, follies, mysteries, and truths that comprise the legacy of the Chinese, whether they live in the recently red mainland or here, south of the Portas do Cerco, under a foreign flag.
Once he's procured cigarettes from a street vendor, he resumes walking, in no hurry to get home. His thoughts turn slightly less inward to a project he has not yet begun, because it bears too much resemblance to an earlier endeavor— one he doesn't quite regret, but in which he remains disappointed, since in it he sees his limits as a writer and translator. He quickly abandons this line of thinking, which is no less painful than loneliness at its worst, and focuses on the old houses to his left, their pastel walls aglow with latent sunshine even as night settles over the city. It's an effect he imagines isn't found anywhere else in the world, though if asked he'd be the first to admit that this belief stems from a love of his home more than any objective study of light and architecture. Over the years he's been asked all sorts of questions by all sorts of people, in several different languages, and he's always done his best to answer them, or at least teach those who ask how to find the answer for themselves.
But as darkness seeps into the City of the Name of God, there is practically nobody around to ask questions. He counts it a blessing, remembering how crowded the streets were during and after the war, packed with refugees desperate for any scrap of charity or chance to start anew. He listens to the sharp sound of his new shoes against the old cobblestones, diluted echoes of the firecrackers of last month's lunar new year celebrations. Without the need to dodge other pedestrians, rickshaws, or automobiles, he moves freely and quickly, letting his feet, rather than his mind, lead him.
And so he finds himself in the vicinity of the Seminário de São José. He pauses to light a cigarette and leans against a high stone wall, careful not to get his suit dirty. The priests-to-be and their instructors are probably taking their evening meal or are at prayer, but he catches sight of a familiar figure leaving through the back gate and heading his way. In the thickening darkness the billowing white cassock and wispy, trailing beard lend the oncoming padre a supernatural air, diminished by his thick, black-framed glasses and satchel full of books and papers.
“Senhor Gomes,” the priest calls out. His Portuguese bears the stamp of the metropolis, only slightly altered by decades in what may turn out to be Portugal's last overseas territory. He raises an arm and waves, the gesture somehow both lazy and solemn. “I did not expect to see you here. Where are you going?”
“Nowhere in particular,” Gomes says, moving his cigarette to his left hand so he can offer the padre a proper handshake. “How are you this evening, Padre Teixeira?”
“Tired,” the priest says, “and I didn't even have to teach today.” His long beard and thinning hair make him look much older than Gomes, despite being his junior. “Have you been doing research, Senhor Gomes?”
“Perhaps too much,” Gomes says, surprised at the hint of shame in his voice. “I needed a break, and it so happened that it was time to be going anyway.”
Padre Teixeira nods vigorously. “I know precisely what you mean.”
The priest isn't simply being agreeable. They've met in the city's archives and libraries more often than they have in church, and Gomes occasionally suspects that Padre Teixeira's disdain for attention and fame is not entirely honest. He doesn't doubt the priest's love of history or his devotion to God, but he's seen him at too many public events, and read too many of his books, to think that Padre Teixeira is as convinced of man's earthly transience as he claims. Then there's the matter of old-fashioned chauvinism: Gomes has heard that Padre Teixeira looks down on his Portuguese because he did not have the fortune of being born in Portugal. Nevertheless, Gomes overlooks such picayune details, because he and the priest are more alike than not, and both of them have a deep affinity for the city and its history.
“Where are you headed, Padre?” Gomes asks.
The priest shrugs. “To eat noodles, I suppose. I'm tired of bananas.”
Gomes smiles. Padre Teixeira lives on bananas and Scotch. “I won't delay your supper, then,” he says.
“Have you eaten?” Teixeira asks.
“I don't have much of an appetite right now,” he replies.
“I see,” the priest says. “In that case, go with God, and boa noite, senhor.”
The priest hurries off to slurp sopa de fitas among Chinese nonbelievers. Gomes finishes his cigarette and starts walking, unsure as to what to make of his brief encounter with Padre Teixeira.
He roams the labyrinth of streets along the Porto Interior, gloomy even in the full light of day and nearly impenetrable by night. The sound of Hong Kong pop music drifts from an open window above him, while an elderly Chinese couple argues behind the half-closed door of a shop selling pots and pans. It sounds like an argument they've had a thousand times, and Gomes smiles at the ritual of it. A confirmed bachelor, the closest he comes to this sort of domestic back-and-forth is with his sister or, more frequently, the cook, who likes to needle him for not marrying and having children. He ignores her now, having long ago explained that most of the time he prefers his own company, and couldn't imagine being as productive or able to indulge his myriad interests if he had a family to look after. Perhaps if he'd joined the priesthood his decision wouldn't raise so many eyebrows. The thought makes him grin.
When he reaches the waterfront, where the bustle of the day's maritime trade is giving way to nocturnal pursuits of varying sorts and legality, he turns north. The floating casino is packed with gamblers, and he can smell their clouds of cigarette smoke from the road. A trio of foreign sailors speaks a language he doesn't recognize and gawks at their surroundings. If Gomes were a betting man, he'd wager that they'll spend all their money by midnight, most likely in the brothels along Rua da Felicidade. He doesn't understand the appeal of gambling or prostitutes, and wishes that the city had a more salubrious reputation, but such things were woven into the social fabric long before his time, and he isn't one to pluck at the threads.
After watching a steamer arrive from Hong Kong, he turns back toward the heart of the city. In need of a brief rest, he takes his time walking toward the Jardim Luís de Camões, where he finds a bench, catches his breath, and reties his shoes. Two men sit at a stone table nearby, playing Chinese chess in meditative silence, while a middle-aged woman reads the day's issue of Va Kio Pou aloud to a bird in a bamboo cage. Her eyesight must be amazing, Gomes thinks, to be able to read in near-darkness. A group of children runs by, too quickly for him to identify their school uniforms, and disperses with equal speed, each of the dozen boys and girls scattering in the direction of their homes and, presumably, the supper that awaits them.
Gomes looks at his watch and decides that he'd better get home soon. Before he goes, he walks up the hill to the stone grotto where the bust of Luís de Camões broods in shadow. Camões faces west, toward the Porto Interior and China beyond, but Gomes imagines that the poet's one eye is fixed, in an unchanging bronze stare that betrays none of the saudade that must have weighed upon his heart when he came here four hundred years ago, upon a much more distant Portugal.
It takes Gomes longer than expected to get home. He keeps letting himself become distracted by the city in its nocturnal form, stalked as it is by hungry ghosts of the past and present and lit by candles and casino neon. He wonders what the future holds for the Cidade do Nome de Deus, Não Há Outra Mais Leal, and how tomorrow's historians will view the rapid changes that Gomes sees taking place all around him. With his understanding of the city's past, he should know better than to worry, but something in the air these days gives him pause when he contemplates the city's fate. He knows what it is, of course, but prefers not to think about it.
From the street outside his house he hears the neighbors' son practicing the flute, and the man of the house periodically interrupting in disappointed, Chinese-accented Portuguese. Gomes hopes the boy improves enough someday to silence his father, who does not play the flute himself. Gomes unlocks the door, goes inside, and heads straight for his study. He loosens his tie and takes off his shoes before settling into the low-slung, long-armed rocking chair his grandfather bought from a Goan family. His feet hurt, his stomach is empty, and his perambulations around Macau have put him behind in his work, but Luís Gonzaga Gomes is no longer lonely. He is merely alone, alone as the solitary figure in the landscape scroll hanging on the wall, alone as he has always been and has always wanted to be.
He lights a cigarette and closes his eyes.