By Julia María Schiavone Camacho
Portuguese Macau, China. Fall 1937.
Fairy tales never come true. Patricia would warn her daughter, if she ever had one, not to believe in storybook endings. A girl raised sensibly, not spoiled. Her own daughter. Angélica. Perhaps she would create her own tale, featuring a sensible prince. And some practical advice. Be sure he really is sensible, Angélica. Sensible as well as trustworthy and good, before you give your heart away.
Now she lumbered down the narrow passageway above the main plaza. Her shoulders slumped, her chest ached. For once she might be able to cry.
Tonio had offered to escort her home, but she’d declined, not wanting his company a moment longer. There’d been an earnest, pained look in his eyes when he told her the truth. It cooled her rage, but not her humiliation. She wouldn’t express it to him, though. She was always in command of her emotions. Being jilted less than two weeks before her wedding had been no exception.
She was alone again. She had been about to remarry at last. And now she was alone.
She would find someone else. Straightening her spine, she stepped onto the square. She walked across the faded golden and russet cobles toward the road below. She would recover her spirits and then move on.
How to find another sensible man? Someone older, settled. Perhaps she would seek a widower. She’d have something in common with a widower. Tonio had been all the right things, but not a widower, and as it turned out he’d ditched her. He loved someone else, he said, someone he lost long ago. He needed to go abroad to find her. He was deeply, wretchedly sorry for hurting her, Patricia. Even as he spoke the words she felt a curious sense of relief. Why? Tonio was hardworking, kind, mild of temperament—perfect for her. She didn’t mention her relief to him; it would only make her look foolish and spiteful.
She passed the bronze statue of an officer wielding a sword in the middle of the plaza.
Her prince would carry a book instead of a sword. He would have short, unfussy hair and wear spectacles.
She lengthened her stride, fearing a sob might burst from her throat at any moment. She would not cry in public. Neither would she allow herself to weep in the privacy of her bedroom. She could never cry anyway, hadn’t in years, not even when she yearned for the release. There was no time for tears now—thirty was not so far off. She needed to get on with her search.
A fierce longing for Tonio grabbed hold of her. But then it lifted, like a weight coming off her shoulders. How odd, especially as she still felt like weeping.
Angélica, a seeming prince could be a scoundrel in disguise. How much future heartache might be spared, if she could teach her daughter the difference. Patricia would need to learn it herself first.
At the bottom of the square, she went to cross the road. She glanced first to one side and then—oh! She sidestepped a gentleman who would have collided with her as he strode along the rim of the plaza. He guffawed at something his likewise distracted companion said.
Disdain welled up in her, and not just because he had almost crashed into her. He wore foppish black trousers and a tan bush shirt. A tweed ivy cap perched on his head at an angle, his hair slightly disheveled. There was an understated elegance about him. He must be close to twenty—but it was his manner that made him seem so young. He was more likely in his mid-twenties. Above all, it was the air about him: carefree, jolly.
“Dear me,” the gentleman said when finally he noticed her. His Portuguese sounded more proper than the mixed tones she was used to. And yet, he didn’t appear to be a peninsular, though he looked more Portuguese than Macanese. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and olive skin, a Roman nose, lips between medium and full, a bold jaw and chin, and striking hazel-amber eyes. He was definitely part Chinese—probably the son of a Portuguese father and a Macanese mother. And he was gorgeous. Like a prince from a storybook. She felt annoyed with herself. “What a brute I am,” he said. She almost nodded, but caught herself. She would not be so rude, would not show him how he got to her. “Please forgive me.” He grinned which made him look even more handsome. He had perfect, white teeth. His eyes shone brighter. He appraised her then. How shocking. She adjusted her charcoal cloche with its simple ribbon. Wishing she had worn something prettier, she glanced down at her navy dress and burgundy shawl, the low-heeled black shoes, then gritted her teeth at her silliness. Why did an outfit that seemed fine for Tonio suddenly make her feel so … plain? Well, she was plain, nothing wrong with plain. If a sensible man is what you seek, Angélica, it is best to look plain.
The gentleman grasped her hand and raised it to his lips, his eyes intent on hers. His kiss on the back of her hand sent a tingling sensation down her spine.
But it was just her indignation.
She pulled her hand back, lifted her chin, and turned away, crossing the road after glancing both ways.
Ivan watched the slight woman cross the road below the central plaza. When she was out of earshot, he released the laugh he’d stifled. He had failed to bite back a grin, which appeared to increase her outrage, making it harder to contain the laughter in his throat. She had glowered at him, her nostrils flaring. She drew breath to speak—he’d looked forward to her set down—but instead she exhaled and narrowed her eyes. Then she turned and stomped across the street. Well, she was too slight to stomp.
Now he grinned at her receding figure, still wafting down the road.
Good God, she was beautiful. He had to look past her scowl, and that awful, unfashionable, too-big dress, though a pretty wrap was draped across her slim shoulders. But hers was a classical beauty. She must have been around his age. He couldn’t quite place her background: she was not European. Neither did she look Macanese, though she must have been part Chinese, like him.
He shook his head, still smiling, as she disappeared down the hilly path.
He turned back to his friend, who smirked at him. “What?” he said, but Davi merely laughed, then finished telling his story about a flirty lady in Hong Kong. They proceeded to his favorite café, just off the square, for coffee and freshly baked egg tarts, which today carried the extra treat of a coy, voluptuous serving girl.
An hour later, glancing at his pocket watch, he decided it ought to be safe to go home. Not entirely safe, perhaps, but he must face it. He took his leave, promising to join Davi and some other friends for drinks and cards later.
He headed away from the plaza, toward the sea. It was a quaint port, he mused as he passed a smaller square where old men huddled around a table playing a board game. Macau reminded him of Lisbon, but with an exotic, old-fashioned twist. The air was like a warm embrace. He had felt it every day since he arrived in town last week. He would have lived here with his family if his father had not insisted all his education must be in Europe.
His father traveled back and forth, and there were grandparents and other relatives in Lisbon. Occasionally Ivan came to Macau or his mother went to Lisbon, always for short stays, since she could never get used to it—or stay long enough to see if she might. In between, she missed him, she always said. But neither of them ever demanded he should remain in Macau like his sisters. And what had been the point of his education? Though he completed his studies months ago, he still hadn’t taken either path set before him: a government post arranged by his father in Macau or a job at his grandfather’s vineyard in Portugal. He had disappointed his father. And himself. But he was becoming maudlin. He must simply choose a direction. Or find a suitable alternative—this held increasing appeal, if only he could think of something.
He forced his feet to turn onto the road toward the governor’s palace and then not to keep going past his own home, nestled in a row of largish houses below the more opulent mansion.
“Where have you been?” his father barked before Ivan had even closed the door behind him. “You embarrassed your mother.” She’d been eager to introduce him to a friend’s daughter at tea. His mother must not recall he’d met the girl on a previous visit.
“I am sorry, Father. It escaped my mind.” The lie fell off his tongue.
His mother emerged from the drawing room, smiling at her son. He could see her irritation melting away. She never held onto her anger, unlike his father. Ignoring the man’s glare, Ivan marched up and kissed his mother’s cheek. He apologized to her with a sincere smile. He hated upsetting her. But he’d needed to avoid that particular girl. Although he would do the same with any others his parents might parade before him.
A picture of the slight woman from the main square came to his mind, or rather sharpened; it had haunted him at the café, pursued him home. He excused himself from his parents, his father informing him they’d have a talk after dinner, and ascended the stairs. The mystery lady’s large brown eyes somehow looked both wary and guileless. She had a delicate nose, succulent lips, smooth, bronzed skin, and well-defined cheekbones. She wore little if any cosmetics, her features requiring neither emphasis nor softening. Why tamper with perfection? Her thick black-brown hair had a high sheen. How long was it? Did she ever let it down from its chignon? He imagined his own fingers taking out the pins.
A week later, Patricia walked to San Agostinho, with its yellow walls and stone pillars and adjacent square. She prayed her roommates’ source was accurate and that Tonio had indeed departed on a ship to America. To find his long lost love? Or to get away from her? Would he and his true love live happily ever after?
She circled to the hall behind the church. Her heart fluttered. What if after all he was here? It was enough she had to face all their friends and acquaintances. Oh, she’d seen some of them during the past week. Her closer friends had called on her. But this was the first gathering since … well, since. Best to get it over with. She strode into the hall, scanned for her roommates, and moved toward their table.
Before she could join them, at least half a dozen people came up to greet her. “How are you?” “So glad you came.” “How good to see you.” Had they thought she’d hole up in her bedroom for a month? Perhaps she should have. But she’d decided to get on with her life, and her search. There were always newcomers, especially with war raging in the north. Refugees from Shanghai and other places the Japanese invaded were streaming into Macau. She didn’t need a wealthy man, simply a hardworking one. Her earnings could help support them. Never mind that after marrying Tonio she was to have stopped cleaning the church and people’s homes and instead helped with his business and tended to their new flat, bigger than his current one—though she’d heard he had let them both before fleeing across the Pacific.
She felt as though someone had kicked her in the stomach. Tonio had brought her to the last dozen or so of these gatherings. It felt good to arrive on his arm, to have someone again. She’d been alone for years before Tonio.
She would get used to it again—until she found someone else.
She should not have come. Although no one said anything about the broken engagement, it was on their faces: they pitied her. They all knew by now. Word spread fast in this little port—that, and Tonio cancelled the wedding plans and returned the engagement gifts, having told her he would take care of it all, a point she hadn’t argued.
One of her favorite couples looked awkward and fretful as they approached. She’d met Tonio at their flat last year (though she’d seen him around town before. There had been that time by the bay when her scarf blew away and he brought it back to her…). She smiled at the couple, as if to say she didn’t blame them. It had been nice while it lasted. She had a lot in common with Tonio. They’d both been through ordeals in their lives. They got on well.
Suddenly she yearned for him. Her breath caught. Then she felt an easing in her chest. The same sequence of emotions she’d experienced all week. Why the relief? They hadn’t really loved each other. But they had, in a tempered sort of way; she’d thought it suited them both. Did he and his fair maiden overseas worship each other?
Half an hour later, seated at the table with Viviana and Dolores and some other ladies and a few gentlemen, adrift in a sea of punch and nibbles and mindless chatter, she plotted her escape. She glanced toward the door.
Her heart began to pound when she saw him. Tall and solid and immaculate and virile. He stood in the open doorway, the orange light of evening at his back. Her prince. But no, someone like him would never attend a church function. Only sensible men did, hence her coming. Her prince? She must be imagining him again. He’d invaded her mind at the oddest times. At work. On the street. At home… She blinked to chase off the image now. But the apparition’s eyes lit on her and he grinned. My God, it was him, with his slightly messy dark hair and almost careless elegance. And that naughty smile. What was he doing here? She glared at him, then looked away. At the edge of her vision she caught him heading toward her table. Oh, no, she would be mortified. She made a swift excuse to her roommates and the others, then stood and cut across to the drinks table, quiet at the moment.
He followed her, taking the cup from her hand and filling it with punch. He handed it back to her. “You wound me, carinho,” he said in his deep, smooth voice. All week she’d tried to recall that voice, and chided herself for it. “Here I am, delighted to see you, and you run from me.”
“I did not run,” she told him. He called her carinho. How outrageous and … sweet. No one ever called her that. Foolish thoughts.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said, taking her free hand and raising it to his lips. She had dreamed of feeling his kiss on the back of her hand again. What was wrong with her? “I’ve been searching everywhere for you.” He had? But no, she wouldn’t believe it. He was a charmer and a flirt. But he was flirting with her? He appraised her then in that way of his that made her feel exposed. She felt her cheeks flush. All week she had pictured just that look on his face.
“You have not been looking for me,” she informed him.
“You think me a liar,” he murmured, his eyes holding hers. “You wound me, again.”
She laughed, though it was more of a giggle. She loathed herself.
“You mock me,” he said. “It hurts, carinho. I have missed you.”
She rolled her eyes. “No, you haven’t,” she told him, though she hoped he had. Apparently, she’d gone mad. She took a sip of punch. “What are you doing here? I never would have thought to see someone like you at such a function.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Why is that?”
“For one thing, there are no cocktails.”
He laughed. “A shame, isn’t it?” He served himself some punch, took a sip, and pulled a sour face that made her want to giggle again, just like a schoolgirl. She quelled it this time. “I came to see my godmother,” he said. “She’s here somewhere.” He glanced over his shoulder as if he didn’t want the lady to see him. To see him with her? “And it occurred to me this is just the sort of boring thing you might attend. And here you are.”
She laughed again despite herself. The church parties were rather tedious, even if she loved her friends, and hoped to meet someone suitable.
“You should do that more often,” he said.
“What?” She felt alarmed.
“You are a silly man,” she said, taking another sip of punch to hide a smile.
He gave a bark of laughter. He certainly smiled and laughed a lot, and both made him even more attractive. “We haven’t been properly introduced,” he said, “and here you are insulting me.”
She led him away as a couple approached the drinks table. In a quiet corner he made her a formal, old-fashioned bow, and she had to stifle another giggle. “Ivan de Souza, my lady.”
“Patricia Chin Castillo,” she said, fighting the impulse to say something unmannerly.
“You are from Latin America?”
“You are not Macanese, then.” People often were confused by her.
“My grandfather was Chinese,” she explained. Was there ever a Eurasian or mestiza princess?
“And you’ve been in Macau most of your life,” he said.
She nodded, pleased that he recognized she spoke fluent Portuguese, while most people in her circle combined it with Spanish. “Since I was five.”
“You’ve lived here for fifteen years?”
She could not hold in another laugh. “You are a foolish man. I am not twenty, and I don’t believe you think I am, though I have guessed that is your age.”
He looked offended. “I am twenty-four.”
“It is your manner rather than your looks.” She felt a blush staining her cheeks again. She sipped her punch. Why had she said that?
His eyes smiled at her though his face was in repose. God, he was a gorgeous man.
Nothing at all like her bookish, bespectacled prince.
“And you are Portuguese on your father’s side,” she told him. “Macanese on your mother’s. You grew up in Portugal.”
He chuckled. “I have no sense of mystery about me, then?”
After a few more minutes of banter—she was enjoying herself—a sober look came to his face and she realized she’d been wrong: he was just as handsome when he was serious. “Step outside with me?” he asked her.
She stared at him.
“Just to the church square,” he added, raising a palm.
“Why?” It came out harsher than she had intended.
“To take some air?” he said. “Because it’s a charming little square? This gathering is rather insipid, as perhaps you agree since you made no argument before. And,” he lowered his voice, “I’d like to get to know you better.”
He was teasing her; it was in his eyes. Or did he mean to dally with her? What had given him the impression she might be someone he could dally with?
Angélica, no one a man dallies with ever appears in a fairy tale.
She looked into his face, unusually solemn—though she didn’t know him well enough to call it unusual. And then she wanted to kiss him. Goodness, what was happening to her? He was a wicked, dangerous man. She must be very careful. She certainly would not step outside with him.
Avoid overly charming, handsome rogues at all costs, Angélica.
She drew breath to snub this rogue, when someone else swept up: Doña Amalia Silva, an older lady with whom she was acquainted, and no doubt his godmother. She greeted Patricia before directing her gaze at Ivan.
“My dear boy,” said Doña Amalia, “whatever are you doing here?”
Ivan winced at his godmother’s words, and Patricia’s smirk. He greeted his godmother with a kiss on the cheek.
He was about to give a witty reason for his presence when Patricia spoke. “It is nice to see you, Doña Amalia,” she said, “but I have to go. I am sorry.” Then she turned to him and said, “It has been pleasant. Goodbye.” With that she rushed away. He watched her go with a strange ache in his chest, and his mind in a daze.
“That poor lady,” his godmother said, observing along with him as Patricia stopped to pick up her purse and exchange a few words with some ladies at her table before she fled the hall.
He had been eager to stroll outside with her. He knew it wouldn’t be easy to get her to agree—a challenge he’d anticipated. She was fresh, exhilarating, with her dubious looks and frank speech and … quiet loveliness. Now that he knew her a little better, he liked her more.
She was a contrast to the silly, simpering girls who clustered about him, in Lisbon as well as here. They tittered at his asinine compliments and empty comments about nothing in particular. It had become a game to him—to see how absurd his chatter could become before someone called him on it. But it rarely happened. He had the sense he could really talk with Patricia, even if his lips ached just as much to kiss her.
He took a step to go after her—he truly had hunted for her all week—but became aware of his godmother’s razor-sharp gaze. It would not do. He’d all but forgotten she was standing there. Now, at least, he knew Patricia’s set.
His mind fixed on something it hadn’t quite registered before. “Madrinha, why did you say ‘poor lady,’” he asked his godmother.
She told him about a recent broken betrothal. Prior to that, Patricia had been widowed at a very young age. While she was married, she’d given birth to a stillborn baby. All that, and her parents died when she was a girl. By now she had no one left, save a few distant relatives abroad. Before the tragedies could sink into his head, his godmother spoke again.
“How do you know her?” she asked him with narrowed eyes.
“I nearly smashed into her walking on the main square. I gave her quite a fright.” He chuckled, though he felt no amusement.
His godmother continued to stare at him, a piqued look in her eyes that he judged best to ignore. “Who’s her former betrothed?”
“Oh, a good man,” his godmother replied. “He’s gone off to America. Something about a long lost love, though some believe he was just afraid of getting married.” The man was above forty and had never married. He was expected back in a month or two. Good, Ivan thought, he could thrash the man then. “We’d all been so glad for them,” she sighed. “Such a fine pair. The wedding was to have been on Sunday.” Less than a week hence. Dear God.
After a short silence, his godmother, who’d been sipping her punch and looking about her, while he pored over her words, riveted her eyes on him anew. “Be careful with her, Ivan.”
Did everyone have a low opinion of him, then? For once he felt ashamed of his misadventures and indiscretions. He smiled sheepishly at his godmother.
A few days later, against her better judgement, Patricia donned her prettiest dress, a deep rose pink satin, for the Chaos’ banquet. As she twisted her hair into a chignon, taking extra pains with it, she hoped he would be there. Her prince. She hated herself. She needed to focus on her quest for a sensible man.
Still, she wished to see him, Ivan. She was acting like a girl, and at her age. He’d claimed to have thought her twenty, the wretch. Twenty, indeed. She was twenty-eight. And she was pretty sure she looked her years, she certainly felt them. This bizarre infatuation could go nowhere.
His parents would never want her—a not-so-young, jilted widow—for their only son. His father was in the administration. His mother was a socialite. Though she was barely acquainted with them, she knew this: they’d want better for their son.
He was just toying with her anyway.
And he was all wrong for her.
But a story about a sensible prince would be boring, wouldn’t it? Princes were dashing and adventurous; they wielded swords, slayed beasts.
The banquet was at one of the best Macanese restaurants in the port and not far off the main plaza. She savored each sumptuous course, her favorites the bacalhau and seafood rice. Before the dancing started, as some people mingled at tables other than their own, an eminently sensible man joined her table. He chatted with her as well as with Viviana and Dolores and the others who had not gotten up to circulate, though he seemed to pay her special attention. And really she was the only available one. Viviana and Dolores weren’t looking—they loved each other, more than friends, she’d known for some time, though they wouldn’t broach it with her. The other ladies at their table were married. But the sensible man was too polite to concentrate overmuch on any one person. She sipped her wine. He just might be perfect: older but not old, settled, nice, calm, and a widower. He even wore spectacles, and was renowned for his library. And he was dull. Oh, she was being mean.
She was the most foolish woman in the world. The whole night she’d thought of him. He hadn’t come. She felt as though a chain were tightening around her heart.
But it was just as well. She forced herself to engage in the conversation. She flinched internally when Viviana gave her a pointed look and cut her eyes to the sensible man, while he listened to something another lady said. Patricia hoped he hadn’t noticed. Her roommates were in their thirties and considered themselves as her older sisters. They’d wanted to trounce Tonio. She began to relax, only then realizing how tense she’d been awaiting him. How ridiculous. Awaiting him, indeed.
And then he appeared. Tall and dark-haired and stylishly clad, and absolutely gorgeous. My, he was well-built. From riding and other sports, she guessed. She pretended not to be aware of him, but caught his every move. He scanned the restaurant, spotted her, and sailed toward her. Her heart thudded.
He bade a good evening to those at her table, including the sensible man, and then rudely—and quite delightfully—monopolized her, taking the empty seat next to hers. The sensible man had seated himself two respectable seats away to her other side.
“Coração,” Ivan said for her ears only and kissed her hand. He gently stroked one of the tendrils she’d left loose around her face. “You look delicious.” How scandalous. But she smirked to herself. For once she really did look lovely. Like a princess, even.
The dancing began. He asked her out, standing and smiling down at her and extending his hand, the rogue. She wanted to spurn him—if she were to dance, it should be with the sensible man—but the words stuck in her throat. She set her hand in his.
He led her onto the dance floor. He held her just a little closer than was proper but outside of indecent. She inhaled his cologne, a light musk.
As he moved her into the dance, a waltz, she recalled with a jolt the last time she had danced—with Tonio, at their engagement party. It struck her that all day and night she’d thought only in passing of her former betrothed—until now, that was. And even now the memory did not feel as raw.
Ivan led her with skill and ease, his touch creating shivers she worked to cover. He smiled at her and asked how her night had been thus far. “Mine was bleak,” he said. “Until I saw you.” She wanted to believe him but knew she shouldn’t. And yet, his gaze made her feel as though she were the only woman in the room. The only one he ever wished to behold. Just as any deserving prince should.
He asked her for the next dance, a romantic one. She had the silly notion they had been meant to dance together, for she fitted against him perfectly. Foolishly, she wondered if he felt it too.
“Carinho, spend the day with me tomorrow,” he whispered into her ear between the second and third sets.
Tomorrow would have been her wedding. His godmother must have told him. Was he to be her knight-errant, then? To rescue her from her sorrow?
How the quest for a sensible prince led to a handsome charming rogue…
All of a sudden, her breath felt ragged. That was not the story she wanted, not the story she planned to tell Angélica. “Why?” she asked him.
“Because it is to be pleasant out?” he said. “I want to enjoy it with you, coração.”
She stared at him and swallowed. She wanted to say yes. She must say no.
When she said nothing and a sapatinho began, she mourned that she no longer felt his strong arms about her, no longer had him all to herself. He continued to gaze at her as he moved around the floor with the others.
When he claimed her for the waltz that followed, she reveled in the feel and scent of him. He awaited her answer, the expectant look on his face warming and tempting her.
Perhaps she would see where it took her. It could lead nowhere but heartache. Despite the sweetness about him, he was frivolous and she was a new thrill, of which he would tire. She would think of that later. Maybe she should give it to herself as a present, being with Ivan on the day that would have been her wedding. She felt a pang of longing followed by yet another swell of relief. There would be time afterward to find a sensible man. She had found one before; look where it got her. Perhaps she deserved to smile and laugh and enjoy herself for a day, just one day. It was all Ivan could promise her. Maybe for now it was enough.
She grinned at him. He beamed back at her and twirled her while she laughed. She did not want the night to end. And yet she looked forward to tomorrow.
Perhaps some handsome charming rogues turn out to be good, and some fairy tales do come true. Maybe she would be able to tell Angélica the story of a princess whose winding road leads to the man of her dreams, who is not at all sensible but adores her and makes her laugh like no other can.
It was too early to say. But she would know the end soon enough. And she would know what to tell her daughter once she had a daughter.
Julia María Schiavone Camacho lives with her husband in Ohio. Born in Tucson, she grew up traveling across the Arizona/Sonora borderlands. Although she misses the austere beauty of the desert and the mountains, she loves the greenery and the seasons of the Midwest. She is a historian and the author of Chinese Mexicans (North Carolina, 2012). An excerpt from her recently completed historical novel, ACROSS THE PACIFIC—about the personal consequences of a vicious anti-Chinese crusade in Mexico—appears in The Hopper. Her current fiction project is a historical romance novel: set in 1930s Portuguese Macau, British Hong Kong, Portugal, and Panama, A SENSIBLE MAN has shades of Cinderella. Julia’s short fiction appears in a Latinx special feature in The Florida Review. She teaches history, literature, and writing at Antioch College, and was awarded a Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education Excellence in Research Award in 2018. Find her at: https://JuliaSchiavoneCamacho.com/.