Rio by Louise Stern

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In Rio the velvety air felt easy and comfortable. We slept on Copacabana beach and our sandals were stolen by one of the bony, dark-skinned group in rags who had set up camp under the nearby palm trees ringed by bits of rubbish. In the night, after we felt in the sand by our heads for the rubber sandals and discovered them gone, Eva strode over, pointed at some of the boys and then pointed at her foot.

[private]—Give me back, she gestured. You give me back. She banged her fist against one hand.
—Me fight you. Come on. Give me back. Me fight you.

One of the ragged, wily ones gave her our sandals. Her back seemed very straight next to theirs.

One night we were drunk on the main boardwalk on lemony cold caipirinhas in plastic cups when a man walking by gave us some shells with the date and Copacabana scrawled on them in black Sharpie marker. He was white and had shrivelled calves covered with sunspots. Pale strands of hair hung off them. His eyes were like a rodent’s – hungry and lusty and unashamed that he would eat whatever he could find, but they were not malicious. He handed over the broken shells as if they were rosaries.

I was sitting on the wall between the beach and the street watching Eva. Unusually, she was drunker than I was. Some of the Brazilian law students we had met a few nights before were there that night.

—You crazy, she signed to them, pointing to them.

One finger was going in circles beside her head. She laughed.

We always wondered at her laughter, how people invariably looked at us, startled, when she laughed. Some childhood friends of hers had told her that her laugh sounded like a horse’s neigh, and she had been self-conscious about it since then. I could hear more than she could and told her that it didn’t sound like a horse, but I couldn’t hear well enough to know exactly what it did sound like, and nobody else would give a satisfying description. They just stared, and we never really felt we had any kind of handle on what was behind their bewilderment. Sometimes now I thought it was more bemusement, but whatever it was, it frustrated me to the point of tears.

People would call it a pure sound, and we wondered if it was only pure because we couldn’t hear it. It was like an imaginary friend that everyone could see except for you, who insisted on attaching itself to you with gooey suction lips, and who everyone liked better than they liked you. It frustrated Eva even more, though. In her mind the horse’s neigh had turned into a donkey’s bray, spit flying everywhere through yellowed teeth like a whale’s baleen. The rodent man was attracted to her laugh. I saw it in his eyes as he looked at her, but then he scuttled away.

I wondered at it for a minute – he seemed to me the kind to want a closer sniff at least. He was the kind to be attracted to shiny bits of broken glass, to want to grab them all up and hoard them in a box.

But then later, when I went across the street to have a piss in the restaurant loo, there he was at a table, watching Eva through binoculars. He was delighted that I had seen him at it. On the paper covering the table he started scribbling, telling me who he was, where he had been, who he had been with, trying to show me the pieces of glass in his box. He had collected a lot. I saw him look at me sideways when he thought I wasn’t looking and he was grinning with sheer delight. He showed me a khaki canvas shoulder bag filled with broken shells like the ones he had given us earlier, and told me that he wandered Copacabana all day giving them out. He had other assorted trinkets in the bag, pads of paper and things that appeared to me either junk or esoteric fetishes, which he held up, tittering.

He didn’t really ask about us, just wanted to tell me who he was. He had been an executive at a paper company, now retired and become beach bum. Eva had come over to the restaurant by that time and was hopping and skipping from table to table. The Brazilian law students had ended up at one table. At another was the huge black man with his heavy gold chains.

With her strong rounded arms that always appeared to me to be a bit masculine in a pleasing way, Eva would tell me again and again how the thickest of his chains swayed into the air when he bent over to write to us on the night we’d first met him. The big gold cross on the end of it swung under our eyes. The way Eva signed it, the cross stayed in the air for a long, emphatic moment, swaying back and forth just a bit but always staying for a few seconds more at the height of its trajectory. That was how we remembered him, because that moment had been re-enacted over and over again, her fingers becoming that shiny huge cross hanging there longer than it should have. We loved it. Now he was here in the restaurant with all the others.

They were all talking, chattering over me. As a child I had longed to be able to overhear. Not any more, usually. The girl on the right turned to me.

—Oh, you hear not … she gestured. She held two fingers up to her mouth, miming drinking from a bottle.
—Me drink, drink, drink.

Her head was thrown back and her eyes closed, the throat in outline. Her skin had yellowish pores. Her hand, with its index finger and thumb extended, went up and down into her mouth again and again.

—Drink, drink, drink. One finger went down one cheek, and then the other.
—Me cry, cry, cry. Cry, cry, cry. Then she turned away and slid effortlessly into animated conversation with the black man.

I wondered exactly where this sorrow she had just told me about was stored in her body, where she held it that she could call it up so fast and then dispose of it so fast. I wondered if it was because she could speak that she knew how to deposit the sorrow outside herself so efficiently. That was the part I envied.

The rodent man came to the table. His eyes were brighter than before. He had caught the fever. He had a plan now and he was eager to tell us, but only if we went with him somewhere. It was a place for us to stay. We had no place to sleep anyway and had planned to sleep on Copacabana next to the same people who had stolen our sandals and who were now cautious, frightened by us. I liked this man well enough; he had already shown me all of his bits of glass, the shiny magpie collection of his mind, and I felt comfortable with it.

— Okay we will go with you, I told him.
— You stay here, I get car, come back for you, he mimed. Eva was drunker and drunker, flitting around the restaurant, so it suited me fine to stay there and wait for him and let her play it out.

She was passed out flat on the pavement in front of the restaurant when he returned for us in a gleaming black executive car. He had showered and was neatly dressed in a pale blue button-down shirt with long sleeves and black stiff pants, the opposite of the dishevelled beach bum we had first met. I sat next to him in the car with Eva sprawled on the back seat asleep.

After an hour’s drive through the dark warm streets, we came up to a set of imposing gates that matched the car. There was a mansion behind them, but it had an odd feel to it, not quite a house, not quite a hotel, but not quite anything else either. It was square and stolid like one of yhe more expensive chain hotels in the States, but with a tattiness to it that I had never seen in any hotel. A sign next to it read ‘Panda’.

At the moment the car paused beside the Panda sign ready to go down the ramp into the concrete parking garage, Eva woke up and was overcome by the sight. She’d always had limpid fantasies of sex and luxury and our surroundings were a good backdrop for them. The garage was lit with fluorescent strip lights. The parking spaces were precisely marked out, two for each of the small doors that were set at regular intervals around the walls. It felt as if we were in a Super 8 motel. I wondered what this place really was.

Up a narrow flight of steps was a nice-sized but unremarkable room like one in a pricey but far from beautiful airport hotel. It had the same beige wallpaper with thin brown pinstripes and the same black nubbly carpet that those places have. But the main room had a mirror on the ceiling and a wall-mounted television. The rodent man turned on the television to show us that it played only porn. It was American porn, starring platinum blonde lovelies. There was a waterbed in the centre of the room with a stiff red velvet cover. Off the main room was a white-tiled bathroom taken up almost entirely by a jacuzzi. On the wall in the bathroom above the his-and-hers sinks was one of those theatrical make-up mirrors with round light bulbs all around the top and the sides.

—You two stay here, me come back for you in the morning, he mimed to me.

Eva and I slithered around naked in the hot tub for a while after he left, gossiping and giggling in the bubbles, and then we jumped on the waterbed. We turned off the television and made faces to ourselves in the ceiling mirror. In the morning a maid brought us a huge spread of a breakfast. There were fried eggs with runny rich yolks and Brazilian bread, sweet pineapple and mango slices, strong coffee, tomatoes and cucumber wedges, creamy butter, and fresh-squeezed juices. It was delicious and we finished it all up.

Soon the man came back and took us to a small dark café by the beach with wooden tables and benches, where we had more coffee. He told us it was the same café where the famous song ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ had been written. He had brought a yellow lined pad to scribble to us on.

‘Men always want silent women,’ he said. ‘You two are the perfect women. You are beautiful and no words come out of you to ruin the fantasy, and you can never hear the filth that is said around you. Completely untouched, untouchable. Men would pay anything you wanted, to be with you. I will introduce you to some.’

—What you got to offer us? I said with a tough cheekiness that surprised me. We do it without you. Eva laughed nervously and met my eyes, but of course neither of us wanted to do without the safety of the rodent man.

We would be Marina and Kristina. He had a special affection for these schoolgirl names. We needed the appropriate costumes, he said. We went shopping in small boutiques with bright jewelled chandeliers. The other shoppers were the slender wives of Brazilian businessmen, the kind of rich women who always had a hard, crystallized certainty that I envied. Eva and I chose two tops – a small zebra-print tube that only covered our breasts, and another tight purple tie-dye top with ‘Olá’ written across the front that made us laugh. The rodent man vetoed a whorish pair of clear plastic stilettos that we wanted, to our disappointment. He told us to meet him that night in a café we knew along the Copacabana beach.

The evening was like the other evenings we would spend with him in cafés in Rio, dressed in our costumes. At the end of each evening, he always told us when and where we would meet the next time. Sometimes we would meet two or three nights in a row. Other times we wouldn’t see him for three days before he reappeared. He always pointed out potential clients, mostly large businessmen with soft pouches under their necks and starched shirts. We dismissed each one for some madeup reason, or quoted an outrageously high price for our services. One night I showed him a slip of crumpled-up paper with a telephone number on it, writing to him that the number belonged to a potential client and that I would be sure to bring him in when fee negotiations reached the crucial stage. His eyes brightened and he had that rodent look again.

After a few nights Eva and I wondered whether he actually wanted to close the deal with anyone, or whether sharing these possibilities with us was all he wanted, nothing else.

During the day, if we hadn’t met anyone interesting, we would wander around, eat, sneak into the pools at the fancier hotels, laze around on the beach. We slept on Copacabana beach or at the house or apartment of whoever we’d met that day. The rodent man had asked us if we wanted to take up residence in the Panda, and it was tempting, but we didn’t like the idea of him always knowing where we were. Besides the Panda seemed to us a slightly boring place to stay for more than one night.

We never had problems finding a place to sleep. A taxi driver took us to stay with his family in a favela, where we slept on the floor in the middle of the children’s room, surrounded by five painted metal bunk beds. We stayed up watching soccer on a television set on top of a plastic orange crate in the street with everyone in the neighbourhood crowded around, jumping up and down when Rio scored.

Another night we stayed in a homeless shelter with a Brazilian Indian woman whose short hair curled around her generous face. Long lines spread from the outer corners of her eyes. We sat with her all day on the boardwalk behind the square of blue felt she used to display the cheap beaded jewellery she sold. The crack she also sold she kept safely in the front pocket of her long skirt. The night after, we stayed in the best hotel in Rio, with a glaringly white-toothed music producer from LA we’d met when we snuck into the pool area of his hotel. In our string bikinis – Eva’s was navy blue and mine tomato red – we looked like any other tourists, even though we had been living on the streets for months by then and hadn’t showered for a few days. The chlorinated water of the pool was shower enough. The producer wanted to party and talk. And the day after that we had been asked by the rodent man to meet him in the early afternoon. He’d asked us to meet him on a street corner in one of the better neighbourhoods. Was it a visit to a possible client? I was a bit excited by this idea, but at the same time, I didn’t want to meet a client in their home, in their territory, with their things and their own smell around them. The reality of it, whichever way it actually lay, would have more of a chance to take over then.

This time he was dressed in neat khaki shorts and a mauve T-shirt. He took us up a wide white staircase into a clean, spacious apartment with dark polished wooden floors and French windows along one wall, looking onto the trees outside. A woman with a soft body and greystreaked hair got up from the flowered sofa to come over to us, and a young girl walked into the room. On his yellow pad, the rodent man wrote to us in a few fragmented words that this was his wife and daughter. Turning to them, he started talking, his mouth opening and closing, the thin wrinkled upper lip pressing tightly against the slightly fleshier lower lip. It was in Portuguese, so I didn’t even have a chance to catch a word or two on his lips, and I was thankful that I didn’t. He gestured towards us a few times, explaining us to them. Later we were served Earl Grey tea and Brazilian cake on a tray before leaving.

We met him at a café in the evening, again dressed in our costumes, but there was a new and strange feeling of something closing in, a possibility of knowing exactly what it was that this man wanted from us, and I didn’t like it…And it had become boring to keep these assignations with him night after night. So one night we stood him up and never went back.

A few weeks later, we saw the rodent man on the boardwalk in the middle of the carnival festivities. He was wearing a sign on his front with some words in Portuguese scrawled across it. Some people near us told us that the words meant ‘I’m a lesbian’. His eyes were fogged over and he didn’t recognize us. He was the only one who said it. I know, even if I often don’t want to believe it, that it is true what he said about the specific quality of our silence. It is potential and remains only potential. It is like water, the liquid clear and thin, something you can feel but not hold down in any way. That is the silence that surrounds me and Eva always.[/private]

This story is from Chattering: Stories by Louise Stern, published by Granta, £10.99.

Louise Stern grew up in Fremont, California and is the fourth generation of her family to be born deaf. She came to London in 2002, where she is an artist and the founder and publisher of Maurice, a contemporary art magazine for children. Chattering is her first book.

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