Josette Killed Herself

Sonia Coutinho

Translated by: Cristina Ferreira-Pinto Bailey

Original text: "Josete se matou "

Artwork by Dare Birsa

I walk to the kitchen cabinet, and pour myself another whiskey. I put a Billie Holliday album on the stereo, lie down on the couch, and light up a menthol cigarette. I’m very tired. Tonight I was at the newspaper until almost midnight, even though it’s Sunday. But, close to the time for the final wrap, a really poorly written story, about twelve pages long, landed on my desk. Five people kidnapped and killed in Pavuna and in Nova Iguaçu. One couple had been handcuffed and burned inside a Chevrolet Opala. The photos made you want to throw up. A guy named Carlinhos Neguinho survived the massacre, and because his cousin died, he decided to tell everything he knew.

         I had to rewrite it up on an old typewriter. The writing head fell off and the keys were coming loose, while the managing editor stared at me furiously: I was delaying the final wrap. I was sweating all over, and when I left I had this need to see someone. I called Carla, but she wasn’t up to it; I just came straight home. 

Home to this dirty, empty apartment, where about fifteen minutes ago the phone rang. It was Cigarrinho, the gofer at the newspaper, to give me the news: Josette, the redhead, had just died. She’d been in critical condition in the ICU of Miguel Couto Hospital for a week, after an attempted suicide with Diazepam and gas. She swallowed the pills and stuck her head in the oven with the gas on, in her lonely little apartment in Copacabana’s Posto Seis neighbourhood.

I stretch out on the couch, rest my aching head on a pillow, and all at once I see various images of Josette: her faded jeans, her vests from India, and her suede purse with fringes; the stories she told when she returned from some hot assignment; the way she held a cigarette between her fingers, and walked back and forth in the large smoke-filled editorial room, her pretty face looking troubled, her gaze distant; her slender, perfect body of a thirty-something-year-old woman, her sensual gestures like those of a whore.

There are a million stories about her. People say the entire editorial staff slept with Josette; she didn’t always know who she'd had sex with the day before. “I wonder if it was Claudio last night?” she apparently asked one day. “I hope it wasn’t Claudio, I find him gross.”

The saddest side of her life will emerge, now that she’s dead: that she lost her parents while still a child in that small country town where she was born. She was left with a pension fund, a permanent feeling of irremediable loss, and the impression that her father killed her mother—he was the one who invited her on that trip and the airplane crashed.

Journalism is a hard profession, especially for someone who, like me, is over forty, an age when copyeditors begin to drink more than they should. Or for a woman: today, Arlette, bleached hair and a little drunk, sat next to me, writing a story about a boy, an adopted child, who was tortured by his step-mother. The neighbours reported the abuse and the police went to check. The policemen came down hard on her. One of them punched the woman in the face and knocked out one of her front teeth. Later I edited the story and wrote the caption for a picture that shows the woman, toothless and in her blood-spattered clothes, arriving at the police station to make a deposition. 

“Shit! Damn it!” Arlette exclaimed as she wrote. “I can’t take this any longer! The newspaper is a poisonous environment; it does so much harm to a woman’s skin and soul. It squeezes us, grinds us until there’s nothing left. One of these days, I’m out of here.” 

But, Arlette, I suspect that you’ll stay. We’ll both die fighting; there’ll be no truce. As much as you think of leaving, you won’t, and neither will I. And if you do leave, sooner or later you’ll be back. This is our world, the circus that is our life, the show that must go on. We come to that editorial room from all over the country, each for a different reason: it’s our Foreign Legion. We wouldn’t know how to live any other way.

“Do you realize what a complex machine this is?” Maciel asked me the other day. “It’s as if we wrote a book every day.  One day’s newspaper is the same size as a book, created by all our heads thinking together.” 

Maciel came from a small town in the state of Santa Catarina, and has had many jobs: he was a store clerk, a book salesman, and even a race car driver, before becoming a reporter. He’s been working in the profession for ten years, and has his own philosophy about it:

“I don’t get worked up, you know what I mean? All I need is to find the right person to ask. I mean, the people who can really give me information. There’s no point running around; you have to keep your cool. Actually, the facts repeat themselves, and all the stiffs look alike. Fires, car accidents, robberies—it doesn’t change much. We already know the procedure we should follow in each case. We talk to a witness, to the business owner, to the driver, etc.”

At first I thought the best reporter was González, maybe because he was from Argentina and had an imposing physique: he was tall, strong, tanned, and had grey hair. But folks told me he was just a hot reporter who knew, for example, how to dress like a biker and infiltrate a gang of drug dealers to gather information for a story. And that the best one may be Renato, whose father is a Basque from Spain, and his mother is from Calabria, but he was born in Alagoas. He looks and speaks more like an Alagoano, and is always talking about politics.

“Now I know less and less about anything,” Renato says. “I’ve been a little mixed-up. I’m still accepted among leftist groups, but people consider me a moderate. I’ve had many disappointments.” 

We all have disappointments, Renato; dreams that don’t materialize or that we’re unable to fulfill. Mine was to write a novelistic report on Copacabana. About ten years ago I wrote its first paragraph; I still have it memorized:

“In Copacabana there are no dramatic sunsets. The light turns less intense and more diffuse; it dims gently along the beach, blending in with the white salt dust. And as darkness descends softly, the buildings in profile lose their colors, and thousands of windows are transformed into numerous small, lit-up squares.”

Copacabana: the dream of every young person from the interior, at last fulfilled; the walled-off rectangle of starless sky, which I can see from my window now. My music is the squealing of a million tires; my perfume, the sweet sour smoke from the cars’ tailpipes.

“Nights in Copacabana bring a veiled threat, as if an immense eye were peering from the shadows, a huge, humid and evil eye fed by Maria Bethânia’s voice, her coarse screams,” I wrote next.

I wanted to tell the history of the neighbourhood, talk about Prado Júnior Street, Hunger Alley, pizza and beer, jogging on the beach early in the morning, the Yemaya festivities, and the outdoor bars along Atlantic Avenue. And I would listen to testimonials: a striptease dancer, a snack bar owner, a boutique sales girl, a woman in her early forties, tanned from the beach, auburn-dyed hair, strolling down the sidewalk with her toy poodle or Pekinese.

Copacabana: an impressive preparation for the ruins of the year 3000, when it will have been declared a national monument to kitsch. Copacabana invaded by rats; Copacabana evacuated after a plague epidemic. A powerful thunderstorm causes a deluge in Copacabana. The water rises above the twelfth floor of every building, and even the tallest hotels stick out like half-submerged towers. A lightning bolt ignites a fire on the top floor of the Othon Hotel.         

My two sisters—both of whom are from the interior of Bahia and deeply Catholic—find it strange that I haven’t got married. They think I’ve lost all the emotions that are considered “human and normal,” because of the life I lead. Rubbish, nothing but rubbish. Getting forever attached to another person, having to put up with forced co-existence —what a pain that is. There’s nothing more unnatural than marriage. My true family lives in that smoke-filled editorial room, where roses wither.

Billie Holliday stops singing, and I turn off the stereo. I’ve finished my whiskey but won’t pour myself another one. I’m going to try to fall asleep, even though I suspect that again I’ll wake up scared, at the very same time—the Hour of the Wolf—when those who can, hear the very high and quiet sound of the Madmen’s Carillon. 

Apparently I was the only one at the newspaper who didn’t go to bed with Josette. I’m addicted to Carla, who carries extra appendages on the front part of her body—she is the star at the Alaska Gallery drag queen shows. But I find some consolation in thinking that Josette, of course, was frigid. She was a collective victim, a child rejected a thousand times, and a sacred object for all to manipulate or ingest: God’s blood, a ticket to Resurrection.

Unable to feel pleasure, Josette searched in vain, in each relationship, for the affection that was always missing. She killed herself because of her frigidity; she was no longer able to go to bed with the father who rejected her, the one who led her mother to her death. Cigarrinho’s phone call was like the final touch, and Josette’s statue is now ready: she’s dead.

And now, suddenly, she invades the living room of this empty and dirty apartment, her immense, fluid body expanding and taking over the entire space, her feet protruding out the window. Her red hair, like the hair of her double, Ann Margret, floats in space, spreading the sweet smell of cigarettes and typographer's lead that forever impregnates each one of us. Her jeans are soiled, but her tight see-through top is still unsullied, revealing her small, childlike breasts—which I touch, in a completely asexual caress.

Sonia Coutinho

Award-winning novelist and short-story writer Sonia Coutinho has been hailed at home and abroad as one of the most innovative authors in contemporary Brazil. Coutinho’s fiction focuses on middle-class female protagonists and their struggle to achieve independence and self-fulfillment, including professional, psychological, and sexual realization. This story was originally published in O último verão de Copacabana by 7 Letras editora in 1985 and has been reprinted with the permission of the author and the publisher.

Cristina Ferreira-Pinto Bailey

Cristina Ferreira-Pinto Bailey was born in Rio de Janeiro, and has lived in the United States since 1983. Her books include Gender, Discourse and Desire in Twentieth-Century Brazilian Women’s Literature (2004) and Poemas da vida meia (2002). She currently teaches in the Department of Romance Languages at Washington & Lee University.