NINETEEN-NINETY. We were twenty-nine and about to be married and had taken a year to travel the world before we settled down. We had a house and a surname for our future kids picked out. We had been in India and China and Czechoslovakia, choosing the places we felt would have the least number of antisemites. Our last stop before life began again was Lisbon.
I don’t remember a lot about Lisbon. We stayed in a room with no windows, and went to see the only movie that was on in English – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We walked the cobbled streets all the way down to the port to score some hash, and ended up with beautifully crafted hash-like looking soap that did not get us stoned. We met a couple on a train and taught them a card game called Fuck Your Buddy, which we still play with our friends, and they joked about us making up a game that only we could win.
We went to other parts of Portugal, too, and I recall aqueducts, showers inside rooms that flooded them, a synagogue which was just a gathering in someone’s flat with plastic chairs. I don’t remember how I felt, though. Did I want to go back home to the place we had picked out and have a child?
TWENTY-TWENTY-TWO. Lisbon’s summer sun rises early but its cafes open late. I’m up at six, but Brasileira do Chiado opens at eight. I’ve been here two weeks, watching it fill and empty every day, but this is the first time I’ve wanted to eat there. I take a seat next to the famous Pessoa statue and the waiter assures me I can stay there until opening, but I’m too hungry, so I walk down to the next square to a bakery with a line of locals standing on its steps and buy warm croissants and a focaccia with cheese and chouriço.
I’m on the fourth floor overlooking the square and ever since this heatwave began last week, the swallows have decided to fly lower, navigating some cool current that flows between buildings. Someone points upwards from the street – look at the bats! she says – but their beaky beaks and fish-tails belie them. I’m glad they’re birds. In the mornings I can hear them calling out in squeaky voices above the deep rattle of the 28E tram to Carreira that swerves around the square. When I close the French doors to my flat, it feels like thunder and I’m sure it’s going to rain.
The week before last it rained one morning, thin bright slivers of water that wet the cobblestones. I fell, then. A slow slip onto sidewalk; a man across the street came over to check I was alright. Apart from a couple of bruises I discovered the next day, I was perfectly fine.
The birds make beachy, seagull sounds. From my balcony, I can see a tiny triangle of river at the end of the street. Below me is the cavernous opening of the metro, and statues of sunlit poets;
a kiosk selling magazines, cigarettes, lighters, water;
black garbage bags from the McDonalds next door;
black taxis with turquoise roofs;
a black man wearing bright red shorts;
a white man blaring technicolour blue;
a woman with her hair up in a high bun sweeping streets;
a yellow tram on its way to M. Montiz, another right behind it for the overflow.
It’s my last day in Lisbon and I want to remember every detail. I want the cool slipstream to carry me like a swallow above the waterways. I want to remember how it felt to be this free
"Biblioteca", oil on canvas, by Ruth Lacey
Ruth Lacey is a writer and visual artist who lives in a small kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee. She grew up in Sydney, studied law in Melbourne, and has an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of South Wales. Her short fiction has appeared in Litro Magazine, Storgy, Fish Anthology, Best of Carve Anthology, Meniscus, Overland, Verbsap, Arc and other journals. She wrote this piece while in Lisbon in 2022.