“Everyone wants to feel useful. No one really wants to be useful though. I guess that’s just one of the reasons I’m rebelling against life. By running away, not participating.”
“‘Rebelling against life’? You’re thirty years old, it’s too late.” This is why you never tell people your age, Severine thinks as Ricardo mocks her, his haggard appearance no doubt compounded by years of Uber driving. And, of course, every Uber driver, unasked, offers the assurance that he’s in pursuit of something else. Strangely, however, Ricardo did not. No claims of “really” being an actor or a writer. Granted, this was Lisbon, but she had still heard the old, familiar lines one would typically hear in L.A. or New York. At least when it came to artistic pursuits. But somehow it came across as “pure” in Portugal. A good title for an ironic porno, incidentally. Severine didn’t bother asking Ricardo how he had become so complacent. There was no need. It was what happened to everyone. Eventually, try as they might to avoid it, the reality of “how life works” backed them into a corner. So it had been that Ricardo’s corner happened to be an Uber seat, from which he felt very free to pass judgment on Severine. The kind of judgment of the combination of vitriolic/flirtatious variety. She didn’t care for it. Sure, it was the kind of thing that might have “charmed” her when she was in her twenties and prone to wanting to be charmed. But at thirty, all forms of verbal abuse–whether they were meant to be “cute” or not–merely sent her running in the opposite direction. But since she couldn’t very well run in a moving car, she made the most of the situation by toying with him a little bit–playing into his idea of himself as Senhor Encantador. This is precisely why she even entertained him when he asked her if she wanted to stop off with him for a moment at the gas station to get coffee before he completed the trip to Sintra. Maybe this was all her own fault for not taking public transportation like most people would to endure the short distance between Lisbon and Sintra, instead preferring to pay twenty-five euros for the “comfort” of a private chauffeur turned low-key lecher. However, knowing he would at least pay for the proposed coffee, she agreed. How was a poverty-stricken ragamuffin who spent her sole pennies on Ubers to refuse?
As they stood in line and he proceeded to prove what he had told her earlier in the car about being a misogynist, he quipped at her fake attempt to pull out some money, “Come on, I know you can’t fend for yourself without a man.”
There he was doing it again: thinking that verbal abuse was cute, endearing. And there Severine was doing it again: pretending that it didn’t make her skin crawl so that she could get through this encounter without being cut up into pieces.
“You’re absolutely right. I just don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been the one to come along and take me to Sintra. Even though I’m fucking paying you to.”
He smiled, getting off on her hostility. “You want an americano, I take it.”
“A big one.” He proceeded to talk to the cashier in Portuguese, presumably adding in some jibe about Severine. Likely about her being a helpless, clueless American. She scooted over to the side of the store where the coffee bar rested, awaiting her precious reward for enduring Ricardo’s bullshit. He himself had ordered an espresso, gulping it under a second but insisting that they sit outside to talk some more while she enjoyed her coffee.
Or tried to, as he prattled on about himself, detailing his time spent in the Portuguese army before trying his hand in the U.S., in San Francisco and New York specifically. He quickly learned that the American mentality wasn’t for him–though, now that he was back in Lisbon, he found that the Portuguese one wasn’t either anymore. So, like so many who try to “find themselves” in another country, he only ended up becoming more lost by the end of it. Maybe he would go to South America next, he reasoned. “You can come with me, you clearly have no plans,” he said to Severine.
She sipped from her plastic cup with deliberate slowness. It was then he noticed the tattoo on her arm as her left shirt sleeve lifted. It was a plastic bag with the standard issue happy face on it that read: “Thank You For Not Using Me”.
“Is that seriously a tattoo you chose to get?”
Severine shrugged, “Why not?”
“You’re fucking crazy.”
“As the day is long.” She swigged the last of her coffee.
“I think I love you and I hate you at the same time.”
Things were escalating in an uncomfortably real manner for Severine all of the sudden. Would she ever make it to Sintra at this point?
The answer came about twenty minutes later as Ricardo’s silver Toyota wound its way up the twisty, Amalfi-like roads toward the palace where, before she knew it, he was inviting himself onto her excursion, which she had so been looking forward to experiencing alone. For all the strangers she encountered insisted that Sintra was a must. That she couldn’t leave Lisbon without going. It would be a sin(tra). Now, she rued the day she had ever listened to natives’ travel advice. What did they know? They were a country that couldn’t even export a Portuguese actor to America.
She felt it would be impossible to reject Ricardo’s insistence on coming along for the excursion without incurring some sort of unpleasant wrath. They had, after all, listened to death metal the entire ride up, and at one point he lasciviously noted, “You should see my back,” in reference to the giant pentagram tattoo he had just gotten done. Severine laughed at how innuendo-laden the sentence was, prompting Ricardo to roll his eyes in the rearview mirror. “I mean I’ll show you a picture on my phone, Jesus. Who is this girl?”
“Who are you talking to?” Severine asked, just to shame him for speaking in the third person.
He sighs, “You know, since you seem into paganism too, this palace has a bit of history with that. It was built because of a vision of the Virgin Mary. And according to custom, a chapel had to be made in honor of that apparition.”
“Sounds Catholic, not pagan.”
“Just wait till you see the High Cross. You’ll understand. I can even take your picture in front of it because I know you Americans need to Instagram every fucking thing.” He parallel parked down the road from the entrance. So this was really happening. She was going to Sintra–visiting a Romanticist castle, of all things–with her fucking Uber driver. It was telling of her love life, she supposed. And of the crime of letting a woman remain “on her own.”
They wandered the park grounds in relative silence at first, putting off the palace when they saw the line wrapped around it. “Maybe it’s not that important that you see the inside,” Ricardo remarked. Already, he was taking the helm of her outing. “Of course you would say that. You’ve already seen it.”
“No but really, let me just show you this cross. It’s absolutely incredible in its wonder, the aura emanating from it.”
Severine knew she was going to be disappointed, especially since they commenced their hike up the hill toward it thirty minutes ago and still hadn’t reached it. She had to quit smoking, she thought to herself as she paused to light a cigarette.
“What kind of fucking monster are you? Smoking at a UNESCO World Heritage site.”
She exhaled, calmed by the nicotine. “The same kind that goes on impromptu outings with her driver I suppose.”
Ricardo was getting annoyed by Severine’s ingratitude, her “subtle” insults that only he was allowed to make. After all he had done for her, the effort he went through to tailor her experience. And as she continued complaining the rest of the way about how she’d rather be waiting in line to see the interior of what Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, in his amateur architect brilliance, had created, something in Ricardo finally snapped, sent the pendulum of his chauvinism in a dark direction.
They ascended the final stairs leading to the expectedly mediocre in stature cross (call it the “Mona Lisa Syndrome”), a sudden quiet befalling both parties. Like each could sense something strange brewing, just as all animals can. In Ricardo’s case, it was that he knew he was going to bash Severine’s head against the concrete cross and use the blood for a ritual he had read about online recently intended to induce wealth and prosperity. In Severine’s case, it was that she knew, just as she had foreseen the High Cross would be a low point of Pena Palace, she was going to, basically, be cut up into pieces. She was fine though. It was her final act of rebellion against life. To die a jaded non-believer (in love or religion) at a Romantic castle created around the existence of a chapel and monastery. Too punk rock to live (fuck that heavy metal shit), she thought, as she saw the blood pouring over her face to cover her eyes from having to look at that pathetic excuse for a cross any longer. Maybe she’d see King Fedinand II in hell. Then again, he was too romantic for that place.