Isabel Martins had sharp eyes yet I always wondered what she saw when she looked at me. What sort of man was I and what was it that I had in mind - because her eyes could tell. Like they could tell that it was not an old rag or some God-forsaken flotsam but something else entirely. "There, look!" I swerved my head to this side and to that, trying my best not to notice the aqualung. Noticing it would be disastrous. Noticing it would mean that I had to get up from the beach, run forty meters to pick it up and then get back to the dark subtle figure in an oversized dress of light blue. A period of time which roughly equaled eternity.
We were sitting on Praia da Marinha (her uncle had business on the beach that was apparently expanding due to growing numbers of tourists), which had been our habit for quite some time now. I would tell her my stories from the north and the city and she would reply to me with silence. It was the listening silence of someone who had seen death much too early and who had swallowed the vastness of nature more than a few times.
There was not a lot I knew about Isabel Martins - but back when we first met I found out about the grim childhood in Luanda and how she would have to wake up at five to travel a few miles to the nearest coffee field. Angolan colonial past. There was not much I knew about the rough times stretching to early eighties. So all I could do when it grew darker and I had to be on my way to the hotel, was imagine the bus that took Isabel Martins and her five siblings to the field. Dusty windows. Potholed roads. Women and children sitting in silence. A toothless driver. An ancient radio playing jittery songs by local pop bands. Endless plantations outside.
And in the meantime, her silence. There must have been a thousand reasons why I loved her silence as much as I did, but perhaps the biggest reason of all was that it made me want to kiss her. Kissing Isabel Martins felt (at least in my mind - heated by the Portuguese sand, soothed by the Atlantic ocean) like the apex of all my dreams, past or present. So I would turn my head to her, and she would do so to, inviting me to a key and a mystery I could not yet fathom. Her big African eyes looked willing, and my head would inch closer and my clenching heart would lose all patience - yet something always stopped me (and by always I mean those two weeks I spent in southern Portugal having escaped the stress and exhaustion of the University of Minho).
In fact, it was during one of these moments of silence, our bare feet a few sexual inches from the steadily creeping water, when she pointed me in the direction of the aqualung. "Would you?" said her eyes, playfully childish first and only time that I knew Isabel Martins (having initially met her at the beachside cafe when she was serving me local green wine). And so I got up and hurried to the spot where the blasted thing was. I had no idea how it got there, but it must have been washed up by the ocean. A relic of some forgotten past, the aqualung looked old but not too old. The hoses had gone and the front part did not look especially presentable either, but overall the state was good to the point where you did not want to just throw it away squeamishly.
Isabel Martins examined it with a puzzled expression on her face and then placed it on the sand nearby. While I began telling her about this latest film (I wonder if she was seeing a lot of films - she didn't seem to connect too well with the outside world and her waitering technique was rudimentary at best) in which one particular character was wearing a gas mask that looked a little like this aqualung. She smiled and we both fell silent. This was perhaps the moment, my moment, and once again my head turned to her but then she smiled again, brightly, smartly, as if suddenly realising something she had been meaning to do forever, and asked me to put it on. And so I did. Stupidly, I did. And Isabel Martins kissed me, or laughed, through the slime and the seaweed, as she swiftly unraveled my mystery. One that, unlike her, I never really had.