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From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 23 December 2007

It felt like a small universe imploding, a time out of time, where all their usual commitments and habits seemed suspended

If prompted they would all tell the same story.

One town, one event, too many coincidences.

The Course was on the regenerative potential of stem cells, those mysterious structures that could, one hoped, turn into everything in the body, healing, repairing, making crippled organs whole again, saving. That was where Pandora’s enthusiasm came from. A French neurologist still uncomfortable about her fellowship in the US, she had stumbled into the organizer at her hospital, was taken by his bubbly enthusiasm regarding stem cells and possible cures for Parkinson’s disease, signed up right then and there. Bernard knew a lot about disease; dropping an “h” and a “t” from his name, he had come to the US twenty years earlier, to carry somebody else’s heart in his chest. His daughter would need the same procedure some day, and if these cells could be used to build her a new heart he was all for it. Having abandoned his law practice, he was now a full time advocate for biomedical research, never missed a meeting, or opportunity to lobby Congress. Jeff was going in the opposite direction, smelling patent dollars in this stem cell business. Paz was a cancer researcher, and stem cells growing out of control could become cancer. Always available to trot boldly into a field she knew nothing about, she thought there might be some ideas worth pursuing. Veronica came, reluctantly, from Argentina, a reproductive biologist whose Head of Department had the sad habit of being orgasmic about whatever the newest, sexiest thing happened to be. Now that these “whatever” cells (his terms) were it, Veronica was going to have to learn something about them.

Five people, one meeting on something none of them was that knowledgeable about. Maybe that was what brought them together. Or the chance that, on the evening of the first day, had had them slowly pushing bad food around at the same plastic cafeteria table.

What the cafeteria timidly started, the meeting would merrily finish. Intended as a stem cell “primer”, it was supposed to give perspective on a fascinating topic, riddled with questions that had all the million dollar answers. Could the cells actually change into everything? Reattach damaged spinal cords, repair hearts collapsed by stroke, bones sieved with osteoporosis, brains ravaged under Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s? What exactly could they do, how, when? Also, and here is where it became sticky, could you get these Super-Cells from adult bodies, or only from human embryos, precious leftovers from infertility treatments? And, if only the latter were true, how would you argue that you weren’t destroying lives to get them, convince those who thought life began at fertilization, when sperm and egg came together? Not that anyone present had issues with that, but those who did were in position to pass laws, and needed to be brought on board. Towards that goal it would help to figure out the Science, some facts in the midst of all the smoke common to new, exciting research. And hope no idiot would run around doing half-baked premature clinical trials, out of Nobel-lust. Trials that could go horribly wrong, burying the field before it ever emerged.

The course organizer behaved like a kid in a candy store, running amok with overflowing enthusiasm that you either got infected with, or were immunized against. He had all the participants on their toes, in the Auditorium from 8.30 to 11.00 AM, from 7.00 to 10.30 PM. In between hands-on lab exercises and demonstrations, each day a different topic, new lectures, new things. No days off. Four days into it (plus the dreary prospect of ten more to go) and all forty-some participants felt exhausted, as if they had been there forever. It was quickly agreed that you can actually overdose on excitement.

The thing is, people create a little life even in the most annoying of circumstances, finding structure in a strange land. Lectures are skipped, a few demonstrations blown off. Trust is given to some of the others, anodyne conversations slowly moving away from the polite aloofness scientists usually wear as a badge of honor. Until they become the friends that make cafeteria breaks short, nights at the bar long.

At first it was little more than the instinct of finding companions for an unknown journey. Paz and Veronica started it off, slipping from their rudimentary English into a pidgin mixture of their native languages, Veronica trying to remember some words from neighboring Brazil, Paz tapping into sounds gathered during the many times she had driven through Spain to get the hell out of Portugal. With the instinct of all foreigners in the US who have not quite blended in, Pandora and Bernard felt an immediate bond with the two short, vibrant women from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Pandora spent a lot of time hearing revamped jokes about France, had yet to find any real connections in her world of hospital runs, some place to dissipate all the energy that you just couldn’t use in Science. She instantly elected everyone at that first cafeteria table as a possible Soul Mate in waiting. Bernard was much more collected, established; or, at least, he liked to think so. The astonishment at feeling his long-lost German accent creeping into the conversation after Day One was therefore more genuine than he would have liked to admit. Nothing like foreigners to bring out one’s inner alien. Jeff, the lone American, brought up the rear. Large, quiet behind deep blue eyes, he had sat at that particular table for two reasons. There had been an empty chair. The wild hair with red highlights that was Paz’s trademark made it difficult to be anywhere else. So he did what he had often done: followed. Bravely fielding the (predictable) barrage of anti-American jokes and rants. Nothing like a powerful relative to bring out the rebels, he thought, philosophically.

Five they started, five they stayed. Paz would later shudder at the thought that she had actually, and for the first time in her conscious life, been part of a dreaded clique. But at the time she knew she didn’t care. Too busy picking up Pandora’s loud tone and strange positions during conversations (to minimize a budding deafness, she suddenly realized), chastising Bernard for starting every sentence with “Well, you must understand”, Jeff for staring at what was so obviously an impenetrable object of desire. Or using her name liberally to stop any argument that might be simmering, until Veronica sternly warned her, on Day Four, that by now the whole Course must be aware that it meant “Peace”, so could she please stop already?

Jeff surprised everyone by using a tool he never had thought useful. Language. No, not Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, he was woefully American in expecting everyone to be able to articulate the President’s English. But he did great accent impersonations, had the others instantly pinned down to unexpected comedic effect. Which balanced his annoying tendency to ask multiple elaborate questions to all the lecturers in the Course. Plus his politics, weren’t, to paraphrase Veronica, “terrible”. Bernard used his calm demeanor and booming bass voice to enormous advantage, even though Veronica had to admit his views on the world were “terribler” than Jeff’s. Some of the best Globalization-era, conquer-all, Americans weren’t even born in the damned place, Pandora agreed. And nothing said they couldn’t be cute either, both giggled, much to Paz’s dismay; our foremothers fought for this? And someone, somewhere, Bernard gravely added, was actually paying them all to take this Course, learn many important things, and make all these witty remarks. What a giant leap for Mankind, Womankind, Anykind. It was so true, they had to smile.

Granted, there were tense moments. Arising, almost inevitably, when the invisible balance that brought them together was tested. Like after Bernard admitted matter-of-factly at breakfast that he was married with children, having previously tip-toed around the issue for almost a week. Veronica and Pandora were both shocked out of the morning session, which was precisely why Bernard had felt the urge to come clean, not being able to choose when there really wasn’t any choice. It took Paz most of the afternoon to bring them out of the funk, and Bernard all night and some priming from Jeff (and pints of Sam Adams), to apologize for the omission, nervously stroking his graying beard, the ego boost that had carried him though this bigamy of the mind totally deflated. Forgiveness was granted at 1.00 AM, around closing time. True, Bernard hadn’t said anything, but Veronica and Pandora knew very well why they had neglected to ask. And Paz was pretty sure both were relieved Bernard didn’t take the chance to query them on the commitments in their own lives. But, as Paz and Jeff came together as the beacons of rationality in a budding soap opera, they would soon need the others to act on their behalf in the next major crisis. About twenty hours later, when Paz gave Jeff the standard “lets just be friends” speech, which women still seem to regard as a useful tool in the murky business of relationships, despite all evidence to the contrary. Jeff, predictable as ever, went on a mild destructive binge. Prompting Paz to finally blurt out that if he was going to be an asshole about it they might as well just fuck and get it over with. That certainly calmed things down.

Silently nursing drinks that evening, none of them even dared note that, in a few measly days, they had just lived through a couple of months worth of life in the real world, wherever that was. Or that the strings that united them seemed to also represent the borders that would keep them apart. Close, yes. But no closer. Reality TV, without the TV, noted Jeff. Veronica thought a lot about the summer camps of her youth, the instant togetherness that was meant to end. Except all involved were professional, smart, thoughtful, insightful, experienced people in their thirties. Who should have known better. But who, of course, hadn’t. Paz raised her glass gave thanks to that. So they behaved like kids, so what? It just meant that, deep down, they were alive and hungry, and if that was not a great reason to down a few, she had no idea what was. Non-alcoholic, caffeine-free Veronica was so inspired she immediately ordered her own drink. Pandora, who had started long before on the Cabernet, loudly proclaimed her utmost happiness for the moment, and seemed about to jump on the table, ready to repeat some variation of an inspired “carpe diem”. Jeff managed a friendly tackle, although Pandora did end up on top of Paz, with Paz knocking over the drink that Veronica had painstakingly convinced herself to have. Oblivious to the notion of seizing the day, Bernard kept shaking his head, whispering over and over again (half in German) that he didn’t usually do these kinds of things.

A few days later the course was over. To everyone’s dismay. Yes, they had lives to go back to. Yes, despite protests to the contrary, all had gratefully ticked the final days away, too exhausted for further enlightenment. Still, it felt like a small universe imploding, a time out of time, where all their usual commitments and habits seemed suspended. So they could actually glean into them, as if an alien life form were walking in their body. Whatever some might say, such a sight is never pretty. Useful, yes; pretty, no. The poison of too much perspective as effective as that of none. So, thanks to this microcosmos of bonding without bondage, The Five were now acutely aware that they were not happy with different aspects of their lives. Some they had admitted to themselves and each other, some not. But, then again, how rare is that, really?

It was time to go home.


In the next few months the omens were not good. Emails flowed, of course, that’s what they do. But not much else. Yes, a Reunion would be in order, at some point, great idea. But to juggle schedules, careers, time. Not so great. The flow tricked along, drying, the emails turning telegraphic, dismissive. Until coincidence, the gods of Science and another big city beckoned.

Always the sucker for dates and details, Pandora realized she and Paz would be in the same place in July, for separate meetings. Paz quickly found yet another meeting Veronica might be interested in, close enough that both Jeff and Bernard might make a short detour from whatever it was they were doing. Of course, Fate is never perfect, but after much planning and misunderstandings The Five were together in yet another bad hotel bar for the grand total of one glorious evening. Where, miraculously, the conversations picked up exactly where they had been abandoned the previous summer.

And they were hooked.

So they kept on meeting, throughout the years. How many? None could be sure. Not for lack of memory. But because, after that first hard fought coincidence, the group rarely seemed to have the same lineup. But they had learned that one night of conversation at whatever watering hole could be uncovered was worth it. Rarely all were available, they weren’t organized enough, had other things to do. An unspoken rule was that meetings would always be on neutral ground, a moment of suspended animation where they could just be each other; free to make up lies to cover for the ones they lived every day, if so desired. So the truth was they had few clues about each other’s “secret” lives. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t talk about them. An effort was always made not to discuss the absent. Really. But, of course, that proved impossible. Veronica and Paz pictured Jeff with three blond kids and a minivan. Jeff and Pandora scolded Paz’s wild nights with men half her age in some seedy and degenerate Portuguese underground. Veronica and Bernard worried about Pandora taming her overwhelming enthusiasm with her own prescriptions. Paz and Jeff made elaborate plans to bring Veronica out of herself, although they had little idea of what that meant, exactly. And Pandora and Veronica discussed Bernard’s possible secrets at very long lengths. How much of what was true? Probably a lot, they knew each other too well. Probably not much, they really didn’t.


One balmy March morning Veronica and Jeff met at a Conference in Shipboat Springs, Colorado. No planning, just plain coincidence, the same that had brought them together in the first place. Loudly standing in line in front of the registration desk they went over their lives as two fifths of the Five. Neither of them would later be able to describe the person that slowly crept into the conversation. Man, woman, graduate student, professor. The accent, that’s all that remained. A nameless and shapeless accent that lingered in the crisp Colorado air. Politely asking if the “Paz” they were talking about (so loudly and obnoxiously, the accent might have thought, if it were really a person, and not merely a ghost with a purpose) was Professor Maria da Paz Pires, M. Paz Pires, cancer researcher. Had they not heard the news? Through friends, colleagues, professional societies, networks, journals?

Veronica spent the next two hours struggling with Portuguese websites, almost three months old, her understanding blurred by language and eyes that never seemed to quite focus. It had been a big story, just in no place Veronica or Jeff (or Pandora, or Bernard) would have known about. The researcher that became one with her subject, inspiring a country to live life to the fullest, in pain or in joy, with any guilt due to others, but never sorrow. Veronica could understand half of what she read, and was only prepared to believe half of that. Until a picture of Paz flashed on the screen, her eyes the usual pure seduction, her body sagging. Veronica slammed her laptop shut, packed, left. She hasn’t been to the US since.

Jeff’s body sleepwalked through the conference. He didn’t ask a single question.

Veronica and Jeff only talked again once, about the need of warning Pandora, Bernard. Then the emails just stopped flowing, and, when six months had passed, they all knew that they all knew. And there was silence.


The first email arrived unsigned, from an address none of them recognized.

Dear All,

Its time for a Reunion.

That was it. Three days later the second one showed up in four perplexed inboxes.

Dear All,

In the beginning I couldn’t figure out how to tell you. Then it no longer mattered. I wanted to say something profound to each and every one. Managed a few sentences in Portuguese, but that didn’t seem appropriate. Our friendship is in English. So, in the end, I had no words.


I thought about things to give you, but, without words, what can you really give friends, but yourself? So, what could I give you, but each other?

You’ll be getting a few plane tickets soon. Please use them. Pretend this is just another meeting. Actually, that’s exactly what it is.

The tickets will take you to a small country. You know which one, you’ve heard enough about it. There will be a car waiting at the airport. Yes Jeff, it will have an automatic gearbox. There will be directions to my hometown in it, Vero should be able to breeze through the traffic signs. The town is in the south of Portugal, flat, dry country, where almost all the hills wear little villages as crowns. Take time to visit a few of the castles, it’s worth it. And toast with some red wine (it really is the only kind, Bernard) in the warm summer evenings, over meat with clams, or bread soup with egg and coriander.

I booked rooms in my town. Walk though it and you will find me. I could tell you my favorite places. But you will recognize them.

Many of my friends roam the city. I love them, and without their help this would not have been possible. But they are friends from another dimension. They don’t know the joys of packed auditoriums and acid commentary to arrogant talks, how good bad expensive drinks in hotel bars can taste. They are my friends in Portuguese. Let all remember the Paz they know. That might not be possible in the city, as much as I love it.

So head Southeast, to the Guadiana River Natural Park. Make sure you are on the east bank. And find a road to a place called Pulo do Lobo. It means Wolf’s Jump. Most of the way it will be an empty dirt road. The countryside is barren, thorny. Beautiful and wild.

At roads end you will see the Guadiana River down below. Calm and quiet before it roars down the rapids. Just like Pandora. The Jump formed when the soft valley was interrupted by a huge chunk of stone. The stone was there first, but the river didn’t care, they never do.

On the west bank there are many things. A car park, concrete walkways, families with noisy kids, tourists with cameras. Which is why you are NOT going that way. Just slowly climb down the goat path. Bernard, I checked with THREE cardiologists, you can make it!

There are many boulders in the river, they create quiet ponds in the river. Sit on them, lie on them, sunbathe, open a few bottles. You won’t be able to talk too much, the river will be loud. So don’t. Listen to the water, look for me in the spray just above the rapids. And, above all, be very glad we were all alive at the same time, and lucky enough to know it.

I know I was.



It didn’t work out. It never does. Pandora said she was sick, Veronica and Bernard busy, Jeff didn’t even bother with an excuse. Too much Hollywood, he thought. Some reunions you have alone. So the tickets remained on crowded desks. They were still on his when Jeff took a flight to another airport, somewhere in Europe. Where he picked up a car. And drove. On the seventh day, in the scorching heat of midsummer, he hit an empty dirt road. Barren countryside; thorny, beautiful, wild. He turned off the air conditioning, opened the window and stepped on the gas, drowning in dust. A John Mellencamp song blared on the stereo, something about all roads leading to a river. This one eventually did, much to Jeff’s relief. As he climbed down towards the deafening waters, shapes wavering with the heat began to take clearer forms. Rocks. Boulders. With people perched upon them, basking unhealthily in the Sun. Predictable, really, four cars were now filling up road’s end. Jeff couldn’t decide whether to hug or turn away, so he just picked a rock, took off his shirt. Paz was right, the waterfall made words worthless. On the next rock Pandora smiled and shook her head in tender amusement. Jeff knew exactly what she was not saying. You thought you’d be the only one to remember her birthday, didn’t you? Jeff’s forced smile turned into a laugh only the river could hear. Ever the magician, Bernard reached into the water, pulled out a bottle of white wine, beckoning all to gather. There were many things to toast in the waterfall silence.

They stayed until the cool of late afternoons brought out mosquitoes and tourists. The latter only the west bank, with its easy access and concession stands. Which the light hitting the spray now covered with a mix of fog and rainbows. Hiding the car park, concrete walkways, noisy kids, cameras. All the better, Jeff thought, it was as if they weren’t even there. Until he felt a sharp pain in his left arm, and turned to find Veronica’s hand embedded in it, knuckles white. Across the water, seemingly oblivious to the evening crowd, a shape was leaning dangerously over the wall, as if to stretch across the waterfall. Half hidden behind the mist, it seemed strangely familiar. Jeff’s eyes turned to Veronica, but he couldn’t trust their wordless phrases anymore. So he screamed above the river. She had been absolutely sure of what she had read, right? What had happened had happened, right? And what they thought was happening could not possibly be happening, right? Veronica just squeezed his arm harder. By now Pandora was jumping up and down on the rock, waving wildly across the river, shouting something in French. The shape waved back, but so did everybody else on the other side, children squealing with delight, their parent’s flashes going off under the mist. Capturing another wacky vacation moment.

Four strange people on a barren riverbank. An older man seemingly lost in prayer. A crazy girl now jumping from rock to rock, still waving. Another woman behaving as if she was the lookout on Vasco da Gama’s fifteenth century flagship, on her way to India. And a shirtless, clueless man, who didn’t seem to know where he was. I bet, thought each and every one of the many people on the west bank, those guys wished they were on our side.

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© 2007 João Ramalho-Santos

The author dedicates this story to Luna de Miguel.

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