Forty nautical miles from Búzios, sundown . . .
It was that Rio guidebook that started it all. If I hadn't passed that window at that precise time of day, I never would have seen it. Some second-hand, end-of-its-tether bookstore with stacks of Agatha Christie scattered about. Sad bait. I know about baiting hooks to lure customers, because marketing was my profession.
The moment I held that dogeared paperback in my hands I felt it beckoning. It became a magic triad in my fantasies and dreams from that moment on. I went to sleep with the words Rio de Janeiro, Cidade Maravilhosa Marvelous City on my lips. I could taste the ocean in my mouth and hear the crackle of fried meat from the vendors' stalls, smell the warmth of suntan oil slathered on female flesh. Rio, Rio: it was my mantra, my incantation, and my escape from this frigid hellhole and my boring life.
3 weeks earlier . . .
It took me the longest fifteen minutes of my life to steal three million dollars and change. The money was transferred with same touch of the keyboard from which I had sent a company-wide memo about contributing to the condolence fund for my former boss, now drooling onto his pillow with his body petrified from a massive stroke. Twenty-nine years of conniving for every advantage and eyefucking his subordinates for any kind of discrepancy—well, good riddance. So the one watchdog I had to fear was safely out of the way. The money flickered past as a rapid blur of numbers into the dummy accounts I had set up. I stared at the screen when it was done, an irreversible act. My electronic footprints were all over the deed. Transaction Completed formed out of the screen's liquid crystals.
That day I thought my heart would thump itself rigid from bouts of ecstasy and terror. It wasn't until I unclenched in that silver bird flying over iced waters of Duluth that I knew I was safe and free, moving at 400 knots toward Paradise.
2 weeks earlier . . .
On the beach at Ipanema, strolling from one blanket basting exposed flesh to shades of golden brown, I heard samba music; now and then an American pop tune wafted on the breeze toward my ears that instinctively pricked to the English in the babel of tongues, mostly the native Portuguese patois with its sibilance and the soft sh that reminded me of mothers crooning to fussy children. Then I heard a harsh guttural Negroid voice, too loud, ramped to offend; an unwelcome reminder of home:
"You can find me in St. Lou-ay,
Where the gun play, rained all day
Some got jobs and some sell yay
Others just smoke and fuck all day."
I was lifting sand out of my rolled trousers when the thumping lyrics thrust me backward to downtown Duluth, where inner-city youth cruising the streets amped their stereos to ear-bleed decibels.
"Fuck the game, don't let the game fuck you . . . " Urban ugliness in this pristine setting offended me like a physical slap. I was still jittery and nerve-strung, afraid the Rio papers would feature my face and name in the headlines. I barely left my hotel room.
I had arrived jetlagged, nerves badly frayed, and hailed the first taxi at the airport after a short, gut-churning delay at Customs. Somehow, I wound up in a second-rate hotel in downtown Centro off Rua Barata Ribiero. I stayed in the room for most of three days before hunger drove me from this shabby haven and I emerged, blinking in the hard sunlight. I made my way to the first street vendor I spotted. My nose tracked the pungent aromas of frying meat from the churrascarrias amid the pedestrian-heavy street with its clogging bus fumes and honking taxis. My eyes cut to the headlines of the Jornol do Brasil at a kiosk, ever fearful I would see familiar English words trumpeting my name and crime. The street surged with life and color, the men as gaudily dressed as the women, who were carrying baskets of produce, the little schoolgirls in their parochial uniforms and patent-leather shoes, the parade of faces passing me by, openly gawping at me, the stranger in their midst, cutting their eyes to me and brazenly assessing my face and clothes. The air was thick with big-city smells, sweet and foul, a trace of sewage hanging over the redolent mix.
I relocated to an upscale hotel in Zona Norte, the Hotel Meridien off Princesa Isabel. And that is where I finally allowed my spirits to soar—in a chaise lounge on the beach with a chilled glass of vodka and fruit juice in my hand.
I felt a shadow cross me as I nodded under a straw beach hat in the sun. A young man, maybe twenty-five, was looking down at me. Backlit by the sun, an odd corona of light over his tousled black hair, I could not tell much of his features when I opened my eyes to see whether a cloud had blocked the sun. He was not handsome, I could tell that much although his teeth were perfect and opened in a smile that was obscenely wide. He had an aquiline-shaped nose, gimlet black eyes, and when he turned his head, I could see the faint outline of a scar that began at one eyebrow and traversed the side of his face down to his neck, thicker as it serpentined downwards to the tail and disappeared into his collar.
His name, he said, was Damio. He wanted to be my guide. Why not? Damio would show me Rio, not just the elegant restaurants and boutiques of my Rio guidebook, but the real Rio, the places it mentioned with a brief, bourgeois leer like the scantily-dressed women during Carnaval. I wanted more than a tourist's homage to Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado. I wanted the Rio the Cariocas, the local natives, knew of but seldom spoke to tourists about.
Damio's oily charm, his crude but easy grace and cosmopolitan chic, kept people from intimidating him despite his slender physique. His Hawaiian shirt flapped open in the offshore breeze, his bony chest belying a deep, velvety voice. The day we met, he laughed so hard at my descriptions of Americans on the streets of Duluth that I could count his ribs. A combination of naïveté, worldly sophistication, and childlike innocence made him attractive at a time when I needed a friend. I was alone, unprepared for the future. The thought I would die in a foreign country sobered me.
At first it was all fashionable spots off Avenida Atlântica, good eateries, the best cafés where women sipped wine with jazzy baubles dangling from their wrists and ears, trendy bistros and nightclubs and Las Vegas-style samba showhouses, dinner theaters, trips to Botafoga and a cruise around Guanabara Bay. One serenely calm afternoon under an opaque sky that looked about to burst into one of Rio's tropical rainstorms, we were sitting on the deck of the Sol e Mar.
I said, "I'd like to see something besides the surf roll up on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana."
Damio responded, "So you are already bored with our lovely beaches?"
His English had the nasality of French.
"What are your limits?" He looked me in the eye.
"No limits," I said. "Anything goes."
"In Rio," he said, pausing for effect, "'anything goes' means something different from your country."
"Indulge me, then," I replied.
"Then it shall be done, my friend." He had the odd native habit of snapping his fingers and hissing. This time he opened and closed his palm to the ground as if he were waving goodbye to the ground.
That night he greeted me in the hotel lobby and we went exploring the city. A leather binoculars case dangled from his neck. We drove past the Hotel Nacional and a bus packed with a motley crew of chattering locals, which made him spit out the window of his cab. Later I asked Damio what he meant.
"It's bus 553," Damio said. "It goes past the Nacional and Intercontinental."
"The riders are all from Vidigal," he added. Vidigal is one of Rio's worst slum, where thirty homicides a month occur, nearly all drug-related. I recalled photos of it in Time magazine years before when the pope visited.
That night we went to the Jardim de Allah, an eerie, desolate park separating the beach of Leblon from Ipanema. The binoculars were night-vision goggles, US Army, and were extraordinarily high-powered. We had gone a little ways into the park and found a spot isolated from the path from which we entered. Damio led me to a little grotto of stones and thick plantain with a view of a clearing down a gradual slope below. Insects whirred overhead, tiny clouds of flying ants streamed from the brush near our heads. Showy Lady's Slipper and Nodding Mandarins teemed amid the grassy sedge and swamp flowers. Moss hung from the low branches of guava trees. The ground was littered with browned palm fronds. Brilliant wild orchids sprouted from clumps of vegetation and overhung a broken cement retaining wall scribbled with graffiti.
Goza na cara
Goza na boca
"What does it say?" I asked Damio.
"'Come on my face, come in my mouth,'" he intoned. "Music of the funkeiros." In the saffron light of gloaming he had metamorphosed, a drag queen.
Damio pulled a flask out of his pocket and passed it to me.
"What is it?" I asked. "Drink," he said and handed me the flask.
Expecting the smooth, fruity cocktails I was used to on the beaches of Copacabana, I took a sip and felt my throat instantly close as the fiery liquid swept down my gullet like a horde of biting insects. I coughed, gagged up some of the liquid, and swore. Damio laughed, his white teeth possessing a neon glow in the twilight. "You like it, eh?" He took back the flask and drank. I watched his Adam's apple bobble as the same molten lava surged down his throat. His eyes were watery. "It's made from sugar cane," he said. "A real drink from gaucho country."
We waited an hour, passed the time in conversation, before he silenced me with his hand. I heard nothing. A few moments later we heard a noise of voices followed by footsteps in the dry underbrush. We had both squatted low to avoid detection. Damio stood up and aimed his goggles in the direction of the sounds.
I watched his face for a long time until a smile spread across his face.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Look," he said and handed me the glasses.
It was a prostitute and her customer. She was fumbling at his belt and soon on her knees performing fellatio. I scoped the action but it was a mechanical act of sudden movements of her head bobbing in front of him while the man's face tightened into a blurry mask. She finished him and wiped her mouth. He zipped himself up, a little flash like a tiny fish darting back into black coral. They left together.
Another twenty minutes passed before the next show. This time it was a pair of couples preceded by crisscrossing beams of light from their flashlights. They were drunk and noisy, sprawled on two blankets. We exchanged the goggles during their lovemaking. After an interlude, the couples traded mates, the women directed to their new partners by the flashlights beside their blankets. One of the women had large, heavy breasts with thick nipples. This second lovemaking session was as mundane and unerotic as the first.
I handed back the binoculars. "I've seen enough."
"It gets better later on in the early hours," he said.
"This is not what I had in mind."
We took the Bondinho to Santa Theresa. I remembered colorful depictions of these open cars in my guidebook. In reality they were squalid and seedy, filled with Rio's unwashed on the way home. I felt eyes boring into me from all sides. They were all wondering the same thing who this Yanque was in their midst. Four tough-looking youths in the back boarded and sat in the back. I glimpsed their crude tattoos, hostile faces with cigarettes dangling from lips. Their laughter grew voluble as we passed one impoverished hillside community after another. Different from the musical cadences of the beach, their language sounded harsh. Damio chattered at me, humming a tune. Then, as if by some sleight of hand, we got off at Rua Dias de Barros, and the city of Rio spread out below us glittering with its lights. Instead of the ragged poverty of a slum, I found cool air, cobbled streets, and little bodegas where one could imagine Picasso meeting that wild bohemian Jarry for an absinthe.
Damio said, "Artists, political activists, lots of radicals live here. That slut Isabel de Jesus used to paint here. Now the bitch's works hang in the Museu Chcarra do Ceu." Lush gardens lined the winding streets, old mansions spoke of dignified antiquity, and the stone stairways carved into the hillside made the place seem enchanted.
We followed a circuitous path of stairways that crisscrossed the long climb. Damio's youth was hard to match. He skipped like a goat from one shortcut to the other. I felt myself break a sweat despite the cool air and my breath came in short bursts. There were fewer houses in this section, older ones, less splendid, but at last he stopped, sniffed the air once, and took his bearings. I caught up with him and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Damio," I gasped. "I can't keep up with you."
He gave me that familiar look. "Have a drink," he said. There was the flask I had seen before. It had small embedded rhinestones surrounding an engraving.
I took a small sip. "Jesus, this brew doesn't get easier with practice."
"You have noticed, maybe, there is a myth of sexual equality in Rio."
I was getting used to his non sequiturs. "But in reality only the Europeans have the wealth and go to the exclusive balls where the women outnumber the men by as much as ten to one. The organizers of the most coveted balls pay the women a great deal of money. But at the Samba Parade, everyone is equal. Only timidity is castigated."
Short of breath, light-headed from the powerful drink, I could only reply,
"By all means let us castigate timidity."
He smirked. "You have not been in Rio long enough to understand.
Everything is a myth in this city. The floats turn back into pumpkins, the samba dancers go back to their cramped apartments and dreary lives. The maids return to their quarters. The affluent return to their pleasures. Men dressed as women return to male. But for one bright, shining moment, everyone is equal in Rio."
"That's why I came," I said.
"Rio is one vast illusion. Take women, for example. They are revered as in no other culture or place on this planet. That is why even straight men dress up like women. They want to be women even for just one night."
"I don't want to be one. I want to find one." I handed the flask back.
"Where is this taking us?"
"There, senhor," he said.
He pointed at a lime-green, two-storey house with a patio. He headed toward it. I followed. Damio walked up to the door and tapped out a rhythmic burst of knuckle on wood.
A young mulatta opened the door. She was pretty, very feminine, and completely nude. The contrast between her thick, swept-up hair, the careful mascara and eye shadow was in stark contrast to the trimmed Mohawk between her legs.
Damio turned to me and said over his shoulder, "You can do anything with her."
She spoke no English except the filthiest words in a sibilant, Spanish-accented voice that created a tantric, hallucinatory language of her own. Damio had disappeared. I never gave him a thought.
At dawn, a milky roseate glow appeared in her bedroom window, and I heard him in an outer room talking to someone who responded in an epicene voice. I showered and dressed while she lay asleep, partially covered by the duvet her derrière as exhilarating to behold as it was when she had me take her while she urged me on in her mushy-voweled, smut.
Damio was sipping cafezinho, the black, thickly sweet native coffee the city is addicted to. I was sated. I wanted no food, no drink, nothing else to confuse my senses.
We strolled back in silence. As we approached Rua Dias de Barras, I saw a cement wall with graffiti. "What does it say?"
"They are advertising the next funk ball at Complexo da Maré," he said. He pointed at the words and translated each one: Funk Balls Every Saturday Night.
"What are they?"
"Kids go there to dance, do drugs. The girls wear micro skirts without panties and they fuck each other in the chair dance. At midnight the DJ summons them with his music, funk music from America of the seventies—only with our samba, and they must fight. That is why the rival gangs meet. Sometimes they get killed so their bodies are dumped in the ravines along the hillside."
"Why do they kill each other?"
"There is an old saying here, "'Your imagination must provide what your wallet lacks.'"
"Why don't the authorities do something?"
"They're in with the dealers. Everybody knows this. Besides, they armed better than the police. Uzis and AK 47s, man. They all carry guns. The drug dealers own the favelas."
"It doesn't sound right," I said and immediately smelled the whiff of my own mendacity.
"Only one way in, one way out. Drug dealers make it easier by helping out the community. The poor used to have soccer and samba. Now it's funk and cocaine."
"Take me," I said.
He smiled and showed canines, red gum. "Of course."
We boarded the Bondinho and looked down the verdant hillsides. The clapboard shacks with their tin roofs and slapped-up boarding were a washed-out gray. I looked toward the bustling city below; out to sea where the hundreds of luxury ships and yachts were moored in the bay around humpbacked Corcovado and the statue of Christ. The citizens of Rio say birds never alight on His outstretched arms. Sea cormorants and gulls formed a lazy gyre above the lagoon descending ever lower to feed on a school of fish just below the surface. The diving birds spackled the water with the silver backs of the fish glittering like so many polished coins. A bluish mist of clouds on the horizon was just breaking through and the last of the constellations faded from the cobalt rim of the water's edge—Cygnus, the Swan and, there, Aquila the Eagle.
Damio sang softly. I marveled at the range of his voice from the basso-profundo of our metaphysical debates about the meaning of life while exploring Rio to this new one, an altar boy's oratorio hitting the high notes and quavering sweetly:
"A refavela revela o choque
Entre a favela-inferno e o céu."
"It does not translate well," he said after a while. "'The refavela reveals the shock. Between the hell-favela and heaven.'"
"War between the body and the spirit," I said, almost to myself, remembering my own great temptation.
"The duality of every human being, no?" Damio chirped. I surmised he was neither happy nor displeased as we rode back.
Monday . . .
I experienced my first ménage à trois. The blonde girl was German, the brunette was pure Rio. They worked together as a couple. Damio sat on the gold ottoman with its red piping brocade which the Meridien provided all its guests. He rolled joints for all of us, kept the drinks flowing, and watched. Now and then he would hum something to himself.
Tuesday . . .
I invited two couples up to my suites for a late dinner. Damio had introduced them to me and then to each other after several poolside chats at the Le Saint-Trop. The women were a dozen years younger than the men. One of the men, Roberto, I had seen working at one of the banks where I secured some of my money in bearer bonds. We had taken them sailing with us. Damio bribed the head chef to make us the Meridien's feijoada, normally reserved for Saturdays. The women, both drunk on a magnum of chilled French champagne that Damio paid for with my money, took each other's bras off while they slow-danced. Damio chopped four lines of Rio's cheap cocaine with a playing card on the tiled glass coffee table. The girls performed while we watched.
Wednesday . . .
Damio arranged a different sloop for us to cruise the islands of Guanabara Bay with two women he knew from the Jockey Club. The sunset was magnificent. As it dipped below the horizon, the confluence of sea, sky, and sun made a green wink of light just before it disappeared into the sea. A trompe l'oeil, but to me a sign that I had seized the moment. It all belonged to me now.
Damio gave me some kind of powder that gave me staying power. We took several turns with each one below decks.
Thursday . . .
I slept all day and into the night. I awakened in the early hours of the morning to a tropical rainstorm blowing in off the sea. The lightning flashes created a bizarre chiaroscuro effect in my room as I struggled to rouse myself from the torpor of too much sleep, drugs, booze, sexual exhaustion. Thunder boomed. I recalled a religious zealot on TV back in Duluth. The sheers overlooking the sea tangled in the cool wind blowing into the room and threw shadows into havoc. For one heart-scalding instant, I feared my hedonism had caused it. My pillow stank of the sour effluvia of sweat and alcohol.
I drank cups of the strong coffee until my system revolted. I spattered the sink bowl with the yellow bile of my stomach. I lay my head against the cool floor tiles and passed out. I awoke as the first of the sun's bars of gold lanced through the pewter clouds. I slept another eight hours. I heard my cell phone ringing, ringing, ringing . . . Damio calling, no doubt. I let it ring. My dreams were feverish like those I had had on arrival where I lurked in the shadows, fearful of exposure and arrest.
Friday . . .
The grizzled beefeater formally handed me a letter with riffled edges in the blue hotel stationery. It requested, first, in Portuguese, and then below that in English, that I remove myself from the premises. There had been complaints from the other guests about the partying and the noise.
That afternoon I relocated to the Rio Sheraton in São Conrado.
We drove for twenty minutes past Leblon on Avenida Niemeyer in the direction of Rio's bustling residential district, Barra da Tijuca. Vast stretches of beach where the population was sparse unfolded—nothing like Copacabana's seething tempo.
Damio greeted me at the door with a small crowd of people in their twenties, mostly women, Europeans and local nightclubbers; they came armed with bottles of wine, vodka, and various Brazilian potables.
"A house-warming," he said. "I know you're feeling down."
"Paranoid is the word," I said, "not down."
"I know everything that happens here," he said and waved the crowd into my room. Maria and Cleice were among them, our two girls from the sloop. Maria spoke in that slow, sing-songy Portuguese from the northeast. Damio said that she had been a country girl from the Pampas, had even been a child prostitute in So Paulo until a rich tycoon had first "adopted," and then married, her. Her rise to Jockey Club status was a Cinderella story.
The party lasted until dawn. I must have passed out. I awoke to a sight of couples collapsed into chairs, sofas, the floor. The air in the room stank of sex and marijuana.
I staggered into my bedroom and saw a girl taking on three men. Her boyish hair was slicked to her head like a seal's fur. A flaccid bald man with a black matt of hair covering his stomach and abdomen like moss videotaped the action. One of the men took himself out of her mouth with a plopping sound and replaced the man thrusting from behind. Like an eel, he slithered beneath her and displaced the other penetrating member. Just then I was aware of Damio beside me.
"Tchutchca—she's a pretty little bitch," he said. "Let's join them."
Saturday 8:17 p.m., in the favela of Rocinha . . .
Another bus clanked gears from the last winding hill to the entrance of a warehouse-sized structure slabbed with tin corrugated roofing and discharged groups of teenagers. They wore similar outfits. The boys postured and flexed, bare-armed and tattooed, in levi's and Doc Martens or American sneakers. The girls in Lycra, tank tops with budding cleavages, leather skirts to mid-thigh and platform shoes or spiked heels. They came by the dozens on foot and in cars. Everywhere you looked it was an army of teenagers from the slums; some looked American with their backward ballcaps and low-slung khakis with a lot of boxer short showing beneath belly buttons. Cigarettes and marijuana, heroin and crack cocaine—drug deals were going on frenetically in clusters of twos, threes, and sometimes six or seven at once. Security guards patrolled the perimeter and carried walkie-talkies with Glocks on their hips. Some hip Darwinian instinct kept these swirling masses of teens moving toward their peers and away from their enemies. Damio arranged our entrance with a thick packet of my cruzados. When he told me how much the man Fernandinho wanted, I hesitated.
"Everybody wets his beak," he insisted. "Come on, friend, you have to pay for the organizer's permission, give the DJ something, the security guards."
"OK, do it."
He sloped off and returned in five minutes. I was irritable from a bad supper of slum-dweller's stew of leftover meat, which Damio claimed was now haute cuisine to the jaded palate. Damio's eyes were alert and his stringy muscles coiled with tension.
"Listen to me," he said. "Do everything I tell you without question."
Damio exploded in wrath. The words that shot out of his mouth first were not English, not even Portuguese but Spanish: "Esto es la coa! Tienes un boludo . . . Just do what I say! These babykillers will gut you with their razors and suck the pulp out of your heart!"
Inside the mobs of teens divided along opposite walls. The music was cranked to emergency decibels—a mixture of pop, samba, hip-hop, rap, and salsa.
"They call each other 'Germans,'" Damio said. He gripped my shoulder with fingers like talons; he had to scream above the din. "The object is to kill Germans." I nodded, uncomprehending, overwhelmed by the noisy assault that vibrated my breastbone.
He screamed into my ear, "They call it 'the Corridor of Death!'"
I saw a phalanx of security men with truncheons facing the two walls and separated by just a few feet in the middle of this barn. The swirling mobs of teens were like separate, angry hives, oblivious of the other side's doing the same thing as they were.
"Wait until midnight!" Damio said happily. "You'll see the blood flow!"
The walls were crusted brown with dried blood. Words of anger and hate, fealty to one's gang, were scrawled all over them.
"What do they call this place?" I was clutching his arm like a frightened child.
"Furacao!" he shouted at me. "It means Tornado!"
One of the security guards, an unshaven giant in a black polyester shirt with gold chains curled amidst chest hair, waved us to a corner. I saw more of my money change hands.
"He'll bring us chopp," Damio said. The local beer seemed an odd normality in this frenzied atmosphere. Skeins of human bodies weaved in a conga line and swayed to the thudding beat of the music. The air was clotted with marijuana and tobacco smoke, perfume and cologne. In a few hours it would be steamy, the bodies drenched in sweat.
"Look," said Damio. He pointed toward a writhing coil of bodies. One of those pregnancy trains decried in O Globo.
It was the game of musical chairs made obscene. The music suddenly stopped, the girls ran to sit on the laps of the boys and squirmed into their crotches. I watched one couple caught in midcoital thrust. When she jumped up from his lap as the music resumed, a ribbon of his ejaculate was released.
"Look at that one," he pointed at a girl whose skirt was up to her waist as she ground her pelvis onto a youth below her. Glossy puffs of her pubic hair haloed the ruby lips of her sex.
"We love a woman with a big ass!" he crowed.
From our table in the corner, we saw a couple of fistfights broken up, resolved by some gang leader, who chastened the malefactors with sharp slaps to the face. I saw random couplings against walls and on chairs as brutal and short-lived as stable matings. Damio pointed out the beeline of dancers in a tight embrace—trenzinho, "little train"—another variation of group sex. At some point a black-haired boy of fifteen grabbed an open mic near the DJ's booth and wailed out a rap. It was Rome's Colosseum transplanted to a dance hall high in the hills above Rio. Damio translated the boy's lyrics:
Sex machine, I screw like an animal.
Like Chatuba of Mesquita from the anal sex tram.
Chatuba screws ass and then screws pussy
Screws virgin quiff, it's the bald men's tram.
The music beat me senseless. I could barely talk and my mouth was dry.
"I have to piss," I said.
"These funkateers are dangerous," he warned. "They use the stalls for ambushing Germans. Go outside."
I made my way to the door—bottles of iced Brahma Chopp had appeared unbidden at our table before I could refuse another. I watched the groups part from me in waves as if I had a contagion. Outside the air was fuggy and rank with jungle smells. I heard voices: security guards and their walkie-talkies. I remembered their guns and decided not to go far, so I let the lemon stream fly against the side of the building. Overhead the constellation Hydra was limned against a blueblack sky far from the glare of city lights. The red moon was a wobbly disk. Somewhere close I heard the popping sounds of gunfire. I realized I was very drunk. Drunk in a ghetto of a quarter of a million people at the end of the world. Drunk in the midst of a horde of teenagers waiting for the signal to fight one another to the death. Damio's plaintive voice hovered near my ear. More of these kids die in funk balls than in all of Palestine's Entifadas . . . girls grind their stiletto heels into the faces of their rivals to mutilate them. Had I read that in the English papers—or did he say that in his chameleon voice?
The luminescent dial of my wristwatch said midnight. Damio held himself in the exact pose I had left him in—bored, looking like one of Checkov's jaded aristocrats caught between a sigh and a sob.
At midnight the music switched from a pulsing samba beat with techno guitar slithers to the old theme song from "Bonanza." I laughed hysterically. I had watched that crappy Western as a boy. It was beyond surreal. When the signal for Mortal Kombat came from the DJ, it turned into an all-out assault from both sides toward the middle. The guards beat them back with their sticks ("The penalty for hitting a guard is death," Damio said). I saw bones broken, faces and arms slashed with knives and razors, youths knocked unconscious, eyes punched out, faces smashed with fists, heads stomped and kicked in a mayhem of violence. I saw rival gang members drag a victim, a girl German, off to their side and watched her disappear into a piranha-crazed mass of flailing. They'll find them dead or beaten into a coma, the girls will have their hair ripped out in hanks, all covered in feces and urine. In the morning, if they're lucky, their friends will take them to the emergency room. If they're dead—;Damio snapped his fingers—the garbage dump.
I watched from beneath a pulsing headache, nauseated and fascinated by the spectacle. This vile musical score, with its swirling tonalities, and demented motifs lasted until dawn. Girls with their dirty Madonna faces smeared with lipstick wrapped their arms around their limping heroes. Outside in the dank air my spasming stomach vomited up a spume of foamy beer.
"Here," said Damio, handing me a joint he pulled from a shirt pocket and lit.
I have no memory of getting back to the Sheraton. I have no idea how he managed to drag me past the blackjowled doorman, nor do I remember how he got me onto the bed. I outweighed him by 70 pounds. When the booze fog lifted at noondisheveled, rank-smelling, stained with the spatter of the funk ball's reekI saw my face staring back from the bathroom mirror. My eyes were red-rimmed, my beard had thickened, and my hangover was fierce. I spewed up what was left in my stomach of the sour beer and showered until my skin burned.
I ate an enormous meal of Bahia foods from the menu: xinxim de galinha, a chicken cooked with lime, dend oil, onions, shrimp and nuts. Gulped two pots of black coffee. I ordered a batida—a variation on the pinga-and-juice theme with a stiff measure of vodka to settle my queasy stomach. I called Damio on his cell phone and made plans to go boating with some women from the Jockey Club. Their husbands were away on business, he said.
I wanted to sail north to Búzios, an enclave of expatriates, feel the wind on my face. Instead of the single-masted sloop Canja that Damio rented before, he had arranged for a twin-engined yacht, the So Luis, to be moored at the wharf. Its big rumbling outboards made a throaty roar as we pulled away from the dockside. I was past questioning his ability to get whatever we needed. He took wads of my cash, but he delivered. One day soon, I thought, I would no longer need him for a guide. I would be generous when the time to part came.
We powered past small craft anchored in the bay. The women went to change belowdecks. I shaded my eyes to see Christo Redentor on our way up the coast. He was on His mountaintop clearly visible in the noonday's piercing light. A million online idiots had voted him one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. I gave Him the finger.
The plan was to spend an afternoon there and in the morning rent a car, return to Rio, or if I felt like it, take an air taxi to Säo Paolo. I wanted to see the city alone. It was said that child prostitution was an open wound that the government could do little about. I wondered what a child brothel was like. Rio's spell had deepened in me. I leaned over the stern railing and watched our churning wake.
I was staring at the smooth golden mounds of the darker woman's backside; she sunbathed nude on the forward end. The chrome rail extending to the bow was eighteen inches high, superfluous unless you planned to harpoon whales. Her all-over tan and lush curves were a voluptuary's dream; the furrow between her legs was dark with a thick tangle of pubic hair in contrast to her bottle-blonde girlfriend, whose pubic ruff was shaved into a neat wedge. A carafe of Brazilian plum liqueur sat within reach. Her long fingers sported rings with large stones of various shapes and colors. Damio's nickname for the dark one was "Hell Cat."
The engines cut out suddenly. I turned to see him, all white teeth and wind-blown hair, his Hawaiian shirt open to the fringe of dark curls at his belly. Against the glare of the sun streaming into my eyes, he was just as I remembered him on that first day at the beach standing in a sunburst of white-hot light looking at me as if from a great height, a pasha surveying one of his dim servants.
"Why did you cut the engines?" I hollered up to the cockpit. I looked at my watch. It was just three o'clock.
"Let's swim," he said.
The water was so blue, the sky so bright.
We dropped anchor.
Damio's body broke the water off the starboard side with nothing more than a sizzling sound. The blonde lifted her head lazily and stood up in a single movement. Her magnificent breasts were a gift from her husband. She stretched and abruptly leaped from in a clumsy dive that must have stung but she came up laughing and burbling, an oversized sprite from a fairyland for sensualists. Damio waved to me, beckoning. He had been a champion diver at his boarding school, he said, and liked to preen for the tanned women in their thongs at the hotel pool. They pretended to read their trashy books or hide behind shades but he knew they were conscious of his every move on the high board. I heard the sound of another body hitting water and decided, "What the hell," and jumped.
Damio broke the surface like a seal and treaded water, lazily moving his arms to and fro in the aquamarine water; his legs below the waterline looked like a cripple's. I had dived aft of the boat and swam lazily toward him. Just as I reached him, he twisted around and gave me a look such as I had not seen in all our time together. His tanned face blanched, leeched of blood. He yelled something unintelligible in Portuguese, but I noted the words "swim ladder" in English. Then, striking out from me, he swam hard, punching the water like a demented prizefighter. I treaded a few feet aft of the motor and watched him circle the yacht—stopping to fling himself up to try to reach the deck, then falling back, and swimming to another part of the yacht. I turned to see the face of the dark woman near me; it was a frozen grimace.
"The ladder," she whispered. Then she made a low baying sound like a small dog.
Jesus Christ, the ladder.
No one thought to drop the folded-up ladder. This was a bigger vessel than the sloop. This yacht could not physically be boarded by someone in the water. It was impossible. I squeezed my eyes shut.
Damio swam up to me. I looked into his wild face.
"We're really fucked now, man," he said. He started laughing insanely.
Some hours later . . .
No one is coming. The sea lanes are many miles away. I have been conserving my strength as best I can, but my arms ache with pain that has magnified itself to a level I am unable to describe.
The blonde woman, Maria (I learned her name an hour ago), has sunk beneath the water after treading for two hours. I watched her pouty little girl's face disappear beneath the water with a look of puzzled surprise. She never uttered a sound. I have forgotten the dark woman's name but I remember her nickname; she was true to it; she flung a torrent of spit-flecked, slum curses at Damio and me.
"What did she say to you?" I asked him when she went under for the last time. I watched her scissoring the water uselessly as she went deeper into the depths.
"Bitch knows lots of curse words," he spluttered, treading. "You don't need to know them now."
If I don't loosen my suffering muscles, my body will sink like a stone. Even though that is certainly going to be my fate, I wish to prolong it because I have to think of everything that has happened very carefully. But even a little talking saps strength and so we stay silent, within reach of our arms, but not speaking. We try to expend as little energy as possible, spitting the salty water from our mouths from time to time.
The water is black and I have not seen Damio in many hours. I cannot tell how time passes. It passes but you cannot tell it. I cannot see the yacht, so I listen for the slap of water against hull. I wonder if he decided to abandon me and just attempt to swim toward the shore. I wonder if he let his head slip beneath the water. My mind is not well focused and I am dehydrated. Shivering causes me to jerk, and I lose more precious energy.
Drowning is not painless. I am aware of the suffocation that will occur once I take that first deep gulp of water into my lungs. But those agonizing seconds keep me from ending it. I need to relive my life now while my brain continues to work although my mind has been prone to drift much in these last hours since I dove into the water and saw the shock-pried, loony face of my guide to the Marvelous City.
I am afraid that cramps will double me up and then, before I can tell my story to myself and get to the finish, I will die a meaningless death. I must have some way of making sense of it all, so I will continue to tell my story to myself.
There is a moon but the scudding clouds carry it off and yet, now and then, it will appear and give me some hope. Death, as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all, all must die. To slip into the black water, open my mouth to the rushing salt stream.
I forgot he is gone. My mind is failing. My arms ache and I cannot keep afloat much longer. He has left me to face my own death. I imagine him appearing out of the waters on the beach of Ipanema, blocking the light of tomorrow's sun, standing and looking down with wry detachment at some other gullible, dishonest tourist with a dirty secret.
The Atlantic Ocean, forty nautical miles from Búzios, dawn . . .
The moon is gone. Blackness surrounds me like a soggy cloak. I can't breathe, my legs are cramped and twitching on their own. My arms are numb to the shoulder.
I am as cold as I have ever been in my life. I cannot tell what direction I am facing, not that it matters because I could not swim a dozen yards. When my head slips under the water, I must use all my strength to lift it above this bituminous, all-enveloping fluid, this ink. The last time it happened—moments, maybe hours ago—I almost let go until the burning in my lungs became too much to bear. I think I am hallucinating. I heard thrashing nearby, a shark maybe. I imagine the phosphorescent glow of its fin breaking water and the black eyes rolling back, those rows of jagged teeth. I swallow more water. The salt burns my throat . . . when I was a boy I opened my mouth to the wind howling off the lake. I could not swallow for days afterward. My fever was 105.
I must return to my story. If I tell it to the end, I will know—what?
Something, I will know something.
"What does it say?"
"It says funk balls advertised every Saturday night."
"What is a funk ball, Damio?"
Familiar spirit, Mephisto. Get thee behind me, Sathana.
I remember now, how it dreamed to me . . .
Jesus Christ, they're just children.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned . . .
The Walls of Jericho Come Tumblin' Down, Down, Down
Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Now and at the hour . . .
Dies Irae Wrath of God, Doomsday, Day of Doom.
Iemanj, Goddess of the Sea, accept my offering.
Ah, there, you stupid motherfucker, fuck you . . .