The rhythmic rolling of the waves onto the sand always made it difficult to wake up in the morning. Felipe usually slept in until almost lunchtime, when the noise of the house grew too loud to ignore. On every holiday the family gathered there, sitting on the veranda and watching the waves, the skies, looking across the bay with carefree eyes. That is where Felipe would think of when he thought of peace, of rest. That house of well over half a century had always been where he would like to retire.
But things were not so peaceful in the few days after 2006 morphed into 2007. When Felipe opened his eyes for the first time on the third morning of January, the day did not greet him the way he expected it to. The waves did not lull him back to sleep, and the fresh scent of the sea breeze did not put his nostrils at peace. The smells of that morning were still good – wet soil, one of his favourites – but ominous. And the sounds of the rain, pounding on the roof, demanding to be let in, and the waves, not rocking quietly but raging against the wall that held up the veranda, did not make the day seem any better.
Felipe looked at his watch. It was not even eight-thirty. He had recently begun teaching an anthropology course at a university about halfway between Mangaratiba and Rio de Janeiro, and although it was a short afternoon class, only once a week, he still enjoyed the experience. On any other day Felipe would have been able to leave the house only an hour in advance and still make it to his classroom with almost fifteen minutes to spare. He knew what he would have had to do: wake up by eleven, at the earliest; relax and go over his lecture plan until lunch, usually served around one; get ready to leave by two-thirty; and finally reach the university by around three-fifteen or so. He even knew that because of the post-holiday mass return to the city, he would be facing extra traffic and would have to allow himself at least an extra hour on the road.
Felipe tried to roll over and return to the wonderful land of dreams, but it was in vain. He got up and walked out onto the living room.
“Good morning, Felipe,” his aunt Elaine said from the breakfast table as she saw him emerge.
“Is he awake?” Felipe heard his mother calling out from the kitchen.
“Yeah, mom. I’m up.” He headed toward the kitchen but glanced outside. Through the closed glass doors – a strange sight in itself – he could see nothing; even the veranda railing was only faint. It was as if the world ended just beyond that door, and there was nothing.
“What are you doing in the kitchen this early, mom?”
“I have to prep the chicken for lunch. It’s supposed to soak in the spices for three hours before going in the oven.” She sprinkles some green spice that Felipe cannot identify over the chicken.
“Oh, she’s just showering. She went to pick up some fresh baguettes for breakfast and came home soaked like a penguin.” She looks up from the chicken. “Listen, do you really have to go teach today?”
“Of course I do, mom. This is only my fourth day teaching. It’ll look bad if I don’t go.”
“But have you looked outside? It’s like the whole sky is dropping on our heads. Plus today is only the third. How many students do you honestly think are going to show up?”
“I know, mom. Chances are I’ll get there, and maybe three people will show up. I’ll dismiss them and come home or something, I don’t know. But I can’t just not go. What if the storm clears up and I get half the class? I can’t make them all go home.”
She smiles and pats him lightly on the cheek.
The storm did not clear up. If anything, it got worse, but that did not affect Felipe’s determination to reach the university. He knew he absolutely had to go, to stay on the director’s good side. He wanted to keep that job. It just meant he would have to allow himself some extra time. After coming out of the shower, Monica had joined her mother-in-law in trying to convince Felipe that he should stay at home. But even though they did not give up until the last moment, they did not succeed. The closest they got was to have him consider calling in ahead to let them know he would not go. He even took his phone book out of his work bag and flipped it open to the page with the director’s office number. But then he thought it over again and rejected the idea.
“No, I can’t do it. It’ll look bad if I call in.”
Monica fished the phone book from his hand. “Here, I’ll call for you.”
But then Elaine interjects: “I don’t think you should, Mon. These people like it better if you call in yourself. They think it’s a bit of a cop-out to have someone else call.”
“She’s right.” Felipe took the phone book back and puts it down on the table, closed. “But I’m not calling anyway. I have an obligation to be there for my students, more than for the university. I’m going.”
“Well. If you’re going, you’re going. But if you need anything, just call me. Don’t feel bad if you decide you’re better off coming right home and skipping work.”
“I’m not going to skip work, honey.”
“Fine. Then just let me know when you get there.”
The chicken was still in the oven when he left. Felipe had just had a few bites of the pasta that his mother had prepared early, just so that he would have time to eat some before leaving. He packed a basic ham-and-cheese sandwich for the road. He had to dash from the house to the car, parked out on the street, to avoid getting wet, and he still felt like he had taken a quick dip in the ocean by the time he had the door closed. At least, he figured, he had plenty of time before class. His clothes would dry up by then. With any luck, he might even have time to stop at the cafeteria for some coffee. He turned the key and drove.
The rain was relentless. On the road, he drove slowly, and not only because there was too much traffic – Felipe had a hard time seeing the lights on the car directly in front of him, no more than a foot ahead. The road itself seemed like an illusion.
At the summer home, his family ate lunch without worries. They saved some leftover chicken –everyone seemed to think it tasted wonders – to treat Felipe when he came back from class, as a sort of prize for being so resolute. Without the sun and the beach, they passed the time with the television and card games, both usually outweighed by their chatter. It was around two o’clock when Monica realized her phone had not rung.
“Strange,” she said, picking it up to check for missed calls. “Felipe hasn’t called me yet. I asked him to let me know when he got there. It’s been almost two and a half hours since he left already. I hope he’s alright.”
“Oh, Mon, I’m sure he’s fine,” said Elaine. “With this weather he’s probably just getting there now and you’ll be hearing from him any time.”
But even Felipe could not tell where he was. The fog and rain eliminated any possibility of following visual cues. He could give a rough guess, based on the car’s milage counter, but he only had any solid idea of where he was when he pulled up just in front of a directional road sign, telling him what lay beyond the next exit, or how far he was from Rio and other major cities. But he hadn’t seen one in a while, and he also wasn’t sure how far he had actually travelled since the last one. Crawling would have been an overstatement of his speed. He could only hope he had gone farther than he calculated.
Another three rounds of Bullshit had been played and Felipe had not yet called. Monica grew more worried, even though everyone else at the house assured her that he had just forgotten.
“Don’t worry, honey. I’m sure he’s fine.” Monica just kept her phone close, glancing at it nervously, almost afraid to hear it ring.
A car drove past Felipe, going in the opposite direction, back towards Mangaratiba. He had not seen it coming, and it disappeared almost immediately back into the fog. Felipe’s own lane, in a line that he could not see but could imagine extended for endless miles, inched forward. He wondered if this was what it would look like if the world ended. He almost hoped the world would in fact end, so that gruelling pilgrimage could be over, but like any other devotee, he knew the pleasure of arriving would outweigh the pains of the path.
On the television, a soap-opera rerun episode came to an end. An ad announced the afternoon movie that was coming up next, but Monica was not paying attention.
“Still nothing,” she said, checking her phone one more time. It was already past three-thirty. His class was supposed to be starting.
Finally, a sign. Felipe squinted and leaned into his passenger seat to try and make out the white words on the green board. Then he frowned, confused, and checked his watch. He huffed, frustrated, and slammed a fist onto the steering wheel. He was already late, and now he knew there was no chance he would make it with any reasonable time left. He had driven for three, almost hours and gotten only a third of the way. Felipe wondered if he would even be able to make it to the university before eight, when it gets dark. Then he took a deep breath, trying to relax, and picked up his cell. Monica’s phone rang in her hand and she picked up immediately.
“Hi, honey. Are you starting class soon? Do you have enough students?”
“No, I’m not at the university.”
“What do you mean? Did they send you home already?”
“Not exactly. I never got there.”
“Why? Are you okay?” Felipe could hear the worried voices of other relatives in the background.
“Yeah, I’m fine. But I’m only at Itacurussá.”
“What do you mean? That’s only, what? Fifteen minutes away?”
“On a good day, yeah. But if you haven’t noticed yet, this isn’t a good day. I’ve been driving for hours and I’ve only gotten to Itacurussá.”
Monica didn’t bother to cover the phone to tell the family. “So what are you going to do?” she asked, addressing him again.
“Well, I’m definitely not teaching.” He sighed. He really wanted to make a good impression. “Look,” he said. “I forgot my phone book on the table, and I don’t have the university’s number in my phone contacts yet. I’m going to need you to call them and let them know that I can’t come.” He doesn’t want to look bad but he knows that he has to.
“Okay, I’ll do that right now. Do you need anything else?”
“No, it’s fine. I haven’t seen any traffic coming the other way, so I should be home quickly after I figure out how to turn around without wasting too much time.”
“Okay. Be safe.” They hung up.
Felipe squirmed his way out of that stalled line of cars that stretches into the whiteness. Driving on the opposite lane, with no traffic, he felt like he was racing a Formula-1, even though he drove carefully through the storm. It took only half an hour and Felipe was back at the house of peace. He took another shower, to warm up, then changed back into the pyjamas he had been wearing that morning. And with the sweet scent of soaked soil in his nostrils, ignoring the incessant hammering of water all around his haven, he went back to sleep. Tomorrow will be a better day.
Written for my Creative Writing class this term. It is my favourite piece of the term. Based on a true story.