The wind is cool coming off the ocean, ruffling the umbrellas down on the beach like a hundred flags. The group gathered around the bar has fallen into a lazy hum of rumination that, given a couple hours, will probably turn ugly and fester into small, violent explosions, catching everyone, including the perpetrators, off guard. Cops and judges and civil servants with their husbands and wives on holiday. Most of them have been here since mid-afternoon. The bar is outdoors, like everything on the beach, and is throbbing with bad dance music.
Max and Alma are drinking rum with their left hands. Their right ones, devoid of the green plastic band that signifies admission, lay incognito beneath the counter. I hate rum. I’m drinking wine, which is leaving me heavy-lidded and quiet. I get careless with my right hand, leaving it brazenly upon the counter. The bartender sees it and smiles at me conspiratorially. I smile back. There’s a class war going on, even here in the resort hotel. He tops up my glass and moves to put the bottle away, then reconsiders and slams it on the counter in front of me, grinning.
“…but by year-end we should be squared away. The home office is sending that bitch to check up on us, to oversee the whole thing.”
The snippets of conversation float to me, intersecting in the air. The sheen is coming off the evening. The waxen smiles are melting and dripping onto the floor.
“…that bastard—and while I was pregnant.”
The wine is sweet. It helps dull me, but I can still catch the sour stories left hanging in the salt air.
Alma and Max are rapt in conversation, so I decide to take a walk. I take the bottle, slide from the stool, and motion to the beach with my thumb. Max nods his head in acknowledgement and continues his discussion. I head for the sand and the sound of the breakers.
“It must have been quite different here then,” Max says.
“Surprisingly not,” Alma laughs. “It looked a lot larger, though that’s probably because I was little. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same.”
“Funny how things seem so huge when you’re small. Not just size even, but that shine things seemed to have.”
“I don’t know about shine.” Alma takes a long drink of rum.
“Well, a certain magic or something.”
“That magic comes later, Max. It’s called sentimentality.”
“You don’t remember how the waves felt? When you were six? Cold, when you’d been in the sun all day? Goosebumps? ”
“Goosebumps? ” Alma screws up her face, has never heard the word.
“Yeah,” Max laughs, “goosebumps. When you get cold and the bumps rise on your skin.”
“That’s called goosebumps? ” Alma asks, incredulously.
Max waves to the bartender for more rum. “She’s never heard of goosebumps.”
The bartender smiles and nods his head. He’s never heard the word either. He pours the dark liquid into wide-mouthed glasses full of ice while his assistant cuts limes and wipes the counter.
“O.K. then, snow,” Max searches for an appropriate example. “The first time you saw snow. Wasn’t it magic? Didn’t it seem impossible, or awe-inspiring—that white powder coming down, and you could throw it, and you’d put it to your tongue and it tasted so clean, or metallic, or something? ”
“I’m an islander. I’ve only seen snow a few times in my life. Mostly when I was older.” Alma downs her drink haltingly.
“All right. You just don’t want to admit it. Forget what you saw. What about what you felt? ” Max tries another angle.
The drinks are placed in front of them without their noticing. The rum lulls them and leaves their speech slightly hindered, warms them, surrounds them in soft focus.
“The way you felt on Christmas Eve. That expectancy, that electricity. You can never feel it like that again.” Max had laboured the point for a half-hour, the booze slowing and stretching the conversation, the sentences hanging on air, taking shape in suspended time. “Or Christmas morning.”
“One Christmas morning, my father fell into the tree and took it and all the lights and decorations over with him. He’d been up all night drinking with his friends,” Alma says.
“No,” Max laughs drowsily.
“Yes…and that seems a little funny to me now, but it also makes me sad—and angry.”
“But that magic. You do know what I mean. The sight of your dad falling over the tree.”
“When my sister helped him up, he slapped her across the face…” Alma stops. “Look, Max, we bring things back when we can live with them.”
“What do you mean ‘bring them back’? ” he asks.
“Remember them. We manipulate them until they can’t hurt us…’till we can live with them. Then they become memories.”
“That’s bullshit. That’s so bleak.”
“No, it’s not bullshit, it’s just not sentimental,” Alma replies, “You create that sentimentality as an adult, Max. With time. With distance. When you’re a kid you just do these things.”
Max waves his hand at her and sits back in his stool. He pours the last drop from his glass onto the counter, then dips his finger in it and moves the rum around, making designs on the tile.
A chair scrapes across the floor and two young men help another to stagger off to his hotel room. The clatter of conversation and music has risen exponentially, pulsing and spilling irrelevancies from the beach bar out over the ocean.
“I don’t know if we should get another drink,” Alma says, slurring just a little. “Maybe we should go find Irish.”
“Ah, don’t be silly. He’s a big boy. He’ll catch up with us. Besides, it’s my birthday,” Max waves to the bartender, “and it’s free.”
The man behind the bar smiles reflexively, but tosses the ice into the glasses roughly, showing his annoyance. The bar stays open each evening ’till the patrons stagger to their rooms, and the final hours are trying and unpredictable. He downs a quick shot, careful to avoid the eyes of the hotel manager or the young security guards who, impetuously amoral and looking for advancement, will squeal to their superiors, shrill as seagulls.
“When I was little, my grandparents took me to Italy to see some family on my father’s side. We left Melbourne in the afternoon. The planes were so huge I couldn’t believe them. That night, over the ocean, there was a storm. We were above the clouds when the lightning began.” Max spoke softly, transported. “The entire sky lit up below me. The clouds flashed for miles around, lit from below. I still can’t believe it. It was mysterious. And not because it had no meaning. Because it had so much meaning. I couldn’t take it all in.”
“I wonder what your grandparents remember,” Alma says. Her hand brushing Max’s.
“They’re dead,” Max lifts his glass, “but I don’t recall if they even looked out the window.”
Alma shifts in her stool, takes a drink of rum and returns it to the counter, leans an elbow on it to brace herself. The alcohol sits like an anchor inside her. Foggy. The racket is white noise, like an ocean on which their conversation floats, drifting toward something.
“One morning, I came down to have my breakfast, and when I got to the bottom of the stairs I heard a noise from the living room. When I went in, I saw that the television was on and I could see my father was sitting in his armchair. I was about ten, so I could only see the top of his head from behind the chair, but in his hand there was an empty bottle.”
“You were ten? ” Max repeats drunkenly.
“I must’ve been. It was 1970. It was the morning my father found out that Salazar had died. I was afraid to walk around to the front of the chair. I could hear him weeping. When I stood between him and the television, he seemed to stare through me. His eyes were full of tears; he never even acknowledged me.”
Alma catches herself and stops. A tingling rises in her fingers. The alcohol accentuates her melancholy ’till it stings inside her. Max is silent. He swims with conflicting emotions, dives empathetically, surfaces angrily. He reaches to Alma, then stops.
“I don’t know why they ever married.” Alma says, lost now.
Shaken straight, Max slurs, “Who? ”
“He hated her family. My mother’s people were from Pico. He always said they looked down upon him. He called them communists. They were liberals at most. She almost lost everything, marrying him. They almost cut her off. And when she moved to Sao Miguel to be with him it worked out that way anyway.”
“He loved her though? ” Max asks.
Alma starts, conscious, and looks into Max’s eyes.
“He didn’t love anyone,” she says.
“Well, why would he marry her? ”
“I don’t know…” Alma pauses.
The white noise is lost. Max and Alma are galvanized in the moment, inside it.
“The only strong emotion he showed her was resentment…to my sister and me too. ‘Just like your mother,’ he would say. She had gone to school in Pico. He hated that. He never finished. He felt embarrassed to be from Sao Miguel. ‘A peasant.’ He said the word like he was spitting. We never saw my paternal grandparents at all. For that reason, I think he hated my grandmother for giving birth to him in Sao Miguel.”
“Why didn’t your mother take the two of you and leave? ”
“She loved him,” Alma says, her voice resigned. “She thought she could change him.”
“She couldn’t,” Alma hesitates. The tingle returns to her fingers. The words begin to catch in her throat.
“What happened? ”
“They continued as usual…’till the revolution came.”
“My sister and I awoke that night, shouts coming from the other room. My mother was pleading with him and screaming. There were loud crashes and things being broken. She kept yelling, ‘Why? ’ We hid in the basement.”
Tears run down Alma’s cheeks. Max leans close to her.
“My grandparents had called her from Pico to tell her the good news. The revolution came at 3 A.M.”
Alma wipes her eyes and reaches for her drink. Gaining her composure a little, her voice evens out and she speaks quietly.
“He hated her then. He seemed to blame her for it, to resent them all to the point of hatred. He beat her so badly that she spent time in hospital.”
The silence is invaded by dance music, as it returns to them. Alma’s eyes are red and new tears well up in them and threaten to break loose. Max takes her hand and squeezes it, not knowing whether to smile or frown. Alma hugs him and then, all of a sudden, seems to realize something.
“Oh, Max, it’s your birthday. I’m sorry.” He shakes his head. “Don’t be.”
Alma leans forward and kisses him.