All that spring, Catarina and Marcelo had been taking lunch on the low stone wall that marked the division between the private beaches owned by their respective employers. At first they would merely nod and sit some meters apart, silently contemplating the horizon while eating sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. But they had come to know each other, first by talking about the view, the weather, the height of the waves; eventually graduating to comical attempts at identifying a strange dark object bobbing in the distance; and finally, in bits and pieces, sharing details about their jobs. Lately Marcelo had hinted that they should go out for dinner, on a date. Lately Catarina had begun to wonder if they were falling in love.
Today she inquired about progress on the house next door.
“The frame is complete, and it’s about time! Finally the closets are big enough for the senhora’s shoes. Next we begin enclosure. They want shingles, American-style.”
“So . . . soon your part will be done,” she said.
“No such luck! You know what they say about carpenters: first ones in, last ones out. Never heard that?”
She shook her head. “I know nothing about it.”
“Well, you can’t afford to be too specialized. I trained for joinery. I even install flooring. Hell, I was on the tear-down crew. Sorry—I shouldn’t curse.”
This was something Catarina liked about Marcelo: his old-fashioned courtliness. Her parents would approve. “Does nothing remain of the previous house? I thought it had character.”
“Part of my job was to decide whether any of the old fittings should be salvaged.”
“And how does one decide?”
“It’s a matter of whether the new owners look sour or enchanted at the notion of keeping the old staircase.” He laughed. “But also determining what it is made of. What something is made of tells you its worth, every time.”
“What are you made of?”
“I’m solid. No rot, no termites.” He laughed again.
The breeze had picked up. Marcelo clutched at his empty wrappers, glancing over at Catarina. She sat still, her head slightly bowed. He tilted her chin towards him, brushed her hair back. Lately he had been availing himself of such gestures, and Catarina had let him.
“How’s the old school chum?” he said. “Any better?”
“She will never get better.”
“Ah, there’s always hope.”
“It can’t be as bleak as the cancer kids. Here you have the sun, the ocean, a patient with no death sentence—she can live for years, your friend.”
“That might be the worst of it.” Catarina shoved her sandwich back into the paper bag. Marcelo laid a hand on her arm, as though she were another wrapper that might fly away.
“This is only the summer home,” she said abruptly. “When they go back to Lisbon at the end of August, I will return to the hospital. Maybe sooner.”
“Abandon your friend?”
“Stop calling her that. We only went to school together. We’re no longer the same.”
“A friend is a friend,” he said. “She asked for you.”
This was true. Lucia, who asked for nothing, suddenly began using the eye-tracker after months of stubborn silence to demand that her former roommate be hired as her caregiver. Lucia’s parents had pleaded with Catarina, offering twice the normal pay. Catarina agreed to be trained on Lucia’s daily care but promised no more than six months of service, just a break from watching the children struggle with brain tumors, kidney cancer, leukemia. They fought the hardest, those terminally ill children, enduring anything to live a little longer. It was heartbreaking. That was the perfect word—heartbreaking—she had used it when describing her work to Marcelo. She should tell Lucia about those children.
“Yes, well,” Catarina said. “Now she is asking for something else.”
“Good! A birthday wish? Some favorite food?”
Catarina sighed. “You know she can’t eat. She can’t do anything.”
Lucia had suffered a massive brain-stem stroke four years ago. It was nearly four months before her mother noticed she was conscious, not comatose, not a vegetable, fully aware of what was going on around her—but unable to move anything but her eyes. Even her eyes could move only up and down, not side to side. When they tried electro-therapy to stimulate her muscles, she howled: thin, high-pitched shrieks. But she could form no words. Her parents spared no expense on a custom eye-tracker that converted Lucia’s up-down movements into letters, words, sentences. Even then Lucia barely communicated, quickly succumbing to fatigue, depression, or both. To Catarina, her eyes looked angry, all the time, even when Catarina massaged her limbs or read to her. Fierce Lucia, staring always straight ahead, depending on others to face her in one direction or another.
She’d always been fierce; it was what bound Catarina to her back when they were at university. Catarina loved her intensity. Whatever Lucia said they should do, Catarina agreed. Lucia, for her part, found Catarina’s willingness equal parts gratifying and disturbing.
“You have to do what you want sometimes. Decide for yourself, not always your parents, your teachers, your priest,” Lucia would say. “Or me, even.”
Catarina always laughed. “But for now, we do what you want, is that it?”
Marcelo had lit a cigarette. “So what does she want?”
“To die,” Catarina said.
“Ah.” He exhaled slowly, blew a few smoke rings.
“That’s all? ‘Ah’?”
“Well, it’s normal, right?” Marcelo shrugged. “A thing people say, even people in better circumstances. It’s good that she says it.”
“You think so?” She had noticed this about Marcelo, his refusal to dwell on the morbid. Her parents had the same hard, simple logic, and would not tolerate signs of helplessness or melancholy in their children. Once, when Catarina was sixteen, she’d burst into tears at the dinner table. When she couldn’t explain why, her mother had slapped her across the face and commanded her to stop seeking false pity.
“Sure,” Marcelo said. “People try out these ideas, only to affirm the opposite. Take her outside more, make her favorite foods—“
“Play her favorite music.” He stood up. His colleagues down the beach had signaled him. “Back to work. What about next Friday, hm? Pay day.”
She shook her head. “Lucia’s birthday. I’ll have to stay.”
“Saturday then!” he said. “Ciao, querida!”
Querida, she repeated to herself, and smiled. First time he’d ever called her that.
Inside the house, Lucia’s bronchial tubes rattle. They need to be cleared. The sound drives her mad; it is relentless. The pain in her legs is excruciating. A vise grips her skull.
She won’t tell them. They’ll only ask if it is better or worse than the day before, stupid questions such as this. What is better? What is worse? She will not pretend that minute degrees of change one way or the other make a difference because the most important thing, the most dominant thing, the thing they cannot grasp, is the enormity of the unchanging. So when she must answer, she always says it is the same. The same. The same. She can smell sardines frying in the kitchen. It is a different smell from yesterday or the day before, when they roasted pork loin, but still all she thinks is: the same. The same. The same.
She closes her eyes and plays her only game. She pretends she is dead. She is conducting an experiment, measuring the strength of her will. So far, she always loses.
Perhaps someone will forget to clear her tracheostomy and she can strangle on her own saliva. But here comes Catarina, already wearing the rubber gloves. It is always the same.
Lucia’s mother entered the bedroom where Catarina sat beside her daughter, an unopened book in her lap. These days she often found them like this, doing nothing.
“Catarina. There’s a carpenter at the door, asking after you.”
Catarina looked up, startled.
“He thinks you’re sick, saying you have not been outdoors for your lunch as you normally do. Haven’t you been eating?”
“I’ll—I’ll eat later.”
“Lunchtime is now. Go. I won’t have the neighborhood thinking this is a house of illness, or that we overwork you, or whatever stories they make up. Go deal with your boyfriend.” She took the book from Catarina. “Well—go on!”
Marcelo was waiting in the back garden when Catarina emerged with a sack of cold chicken. “Enough for two,” she said with a wan smile.
“You haven’t told them,” he replied.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She brushed past him, marching towards their usual spot. She knew he would follow. Perhaps she shouldn’t have told him about Lucia’s request. But wasn’t that what couples did? Share the burdens as well as the laughter?
She busied herself unpacking the lunch, handing him a thigh and asking him about progress on the house, about his bandaged thumb, whether he wanted olives.
“Catarina,” he finally said. “If you don’t eat you will disappear completely! You don’t look like you’re sleeping either. It’s one thing to worry about your friend, but to make yourself sick . . . What use is a sick nurse?”
She only sighed.
“I don’t understand why you’re torturing yourself,” he said.
“She wants me to help.”
“You’re not thinking of doing it.” He turned towards her, studied her profile. “Seriously? Catarina, it’s not even a question.”
“It is all she wants. My help.”
“That’s not help, that’s doing it yourself! She can’t lift a finger. It’s nothing but a crazy thought in her head.”
“It’s not just a thought. It’s the only thing she wants. And don’t say it will pass. She’s known for a long time. It’s why she asked for me, Marcelo.”
“Does she think you are capable of murder?”
“Perhaps capable of mercy.”
“Her parents brought you here to care for her. Think of it, Catarina! You must tell them.”
“Why? Why must I tell them?”
“They trust you,” he said. “They hired you.”
“I’m her friend.”
He threw up his hands. “Do you want her to die?”
“But Marcelo,” Catarina said, looking him full in the face. “Don’t you see that it’s not about what I want, but what she wants? Do you think I’d be lying awake every night if it were simply a matter of what I want?”
She had tears in her eyes. Marcelo put his hands on her shoulders, kissed her forehead. “I don’t like to see you suffer,” he murmured. “Her parents must be told, so they can get her the proper help. You can’t go on like this, querida.”
She tilted her face up, hoping he would kiss her again. “It’s my decision, Marcelo.”
“Of course. You will do the right thing.” He stood up. “I could never fall in love with someone who doesn’t do right, could I?” He smiled and loped off before she could reply.
Love, she thought. He said love.
Inside the house, Lucia’s mother cradles her daughter’s head against her chest, rocking back and forth. “My darling, my angel, my daughter, my darling, my angel, my daughter…” She says the same words, over and over again.
The only other sound in the room is the thump and sigh of the machine that makes her daughter breathe. That, and a single high-pitched shriek.
Marcelo got Catarina laughing over the latest instructions from the owners of the house next door.
“Tell me again,” she said, gasping for air. “What you said. What they said.”
“Just like this, just like this.” Marcelo composed himself. “’I understand completely, but in order to be absolutely clear: you would like the molding exactly the same, but different.’ And the husband—no wait, the husband, shhh—the husband says, ‘Well, no, what we are saying is, just as it is, but different.’ So I said, ‘Aha, yes. Exactly the same, but different.’ And he says—he says—I swear to you, he says, ‘Yes, now you have it.’”
They went into paroxysms. “So what will you do?” Catarina said.
“Obviously I will keep it exactly the same—“
When they settled down again, he looked her over. “So? How are things?”
“The same,” she said.
The silence fell heavily then. Catarina began to work up the courage to ask if they were “on” for Saturday night. The question of Lucia, and what she planned to do, had grown tiresome.
Before she could say a word, Marcelo was on his feet.
“Isn’t that Senhor Carvalho? But he is never home this time of day.”
“He took the day off, for the party,” Catarina began. “But—where are you going?”
Marcelo strode off towards the back garden, where Lucia’s father was setting up folding chairs. Catarina stared after him, pressing her knuckles against her mouth. She watched as they shook hands, saw Marcelo’s lips moving, cringed when Lucia’s father shot a glance in her direction.
“No,” she whispered. “No.”
Lucia’s father disappeared into the house. Marcelo came back. “It is done,” he said. “You don’t have to worry anymore.” He tried to draw her into his arms.
“You bastard!” she cried. “You betrayed her!”
But even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t true. Lucia’s trust had never been placed in Marcelo. Still she pushed against his chest, hit him when he tried to embrace her.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Catarina, this must be what you wanted, or why tell me in the first place? Why cry about it, day after day? You had to know what I would do.”
“Oh really? You think I can read minds?”
“Come on,” Marcelo said. “You know what I’m made of. You knew I would rescue you, if you kept working yourself into tears.”
“No,” she said. “You think it was an act? This was my choice. Now we’ll never know what I would do, what I am made of!” She broke his hold, shoved him away, turned sharply towards the house.
“But we do, Catarina,” he called after her. “We know exactly what you would do: play out this charade, this little drama between you and me. Use it. As a test. For me.”
When she said nothing, he continued. “What question were you really wrestling with, Catarina? It wasn’t your friend’s life or death, not really, was it?”
She didn’t turn around, just kept walking. But her skin went cold all over. At that moment, some part of her wanted nothing more than to sob against his shoulder and let him take care of her, thank him for taking on her burden.
But that was how she knew he was right. Whatever calculus she had been performing, it wasn’t on the problem that Lucia had presented her with. She realized her betrayal ran much deeper than she’d imagined.
“I know what you are made of, Catarina. I know what you are made of.”
She heard a sound that might have been Marcelo spitting in disgust. That was what she always pictured later on, when she replayed the scene in her mind.
Inside the house, Lucia sits staring straight ahead, straight ahead. When that grows tiresome she closes her eyes. She plays her only game.
A dual citizen of Portugal and the U.S., Susana Santos Martins currently lives in New York City. Her essays have appeared in Frontiers, Science Fiction Studies, and American Studies, and her fiction has been published in The Broadkill Review, The Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Gulf Stream Magazine, and Open to Interpretation: Water’s Edge. “The Same, But Different” received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s 2017 Short Story Award for New Writers contest. These days Susana is working on a novel taking place in Portugal and Angola during the Salazar dictatorship. She tweets about literature, futebol, fado and wine @smartins70.