Her hand reached for the finely stained French-style door, and she
thankfully shut out the noise and stench of the ritziest neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.
By Eliza G. Bonner
Ashley walked with calm anticipation into Garcia & Rodrigues, her preferred café
in her neighborhood of Leblon. This area was the most sought-after and expensive corner of
Rio. It was the place where people most wanted to live, and where things first `happened’,
whether it be fashion, the newly introduced idea of charming cafés or expensive and
exclusive restaurants. Indeed, G&R was one of the few chic cafés in Rio, her adopted
city in Brazil, where the poor majority drank its coffee standing up at mean dirty bars
accustomed to serving a chopp, or draft beer, at 6:00 a.m. just as easily as
serving strong Brazilian coffee.
Brazil was caught between its poverty and its seemingly boundless natural wealth,
unable to fully accept or reject either. Technology-wise, Brazil could be considered to be
First World, open to advancements, improvements, wanting to live on the cutting edge. In
just about everything else, socially, politically, economically etc., Brazil was unhappily
mired in the self-serving corruption of the Third World.
People-wise, Brazil had an equally confusing mixture of the educated and the
uneducated, the rich and the devastatingly poor, with probably 80% falling into the latter
categories. It was a paradox she could not ignore even if she had been so inclined. She
could not even walk to this café, four blocks from her apartment, without feeling
unavoidable pity and disgust when she passed the filthy beggars that lurked in every
corner of the city. The nastiness and pitifulness of it revolted her, but it was so
prevalent that one either had to walk around in a permanent state of horror, or close
one’s eyes to it and give alms to the beggars with a turned-away face, with feeble hopes
of assuaging one’s soul.
Stepping over a slowly leaking sewer, Ashley appreciated briefly the display of
"Thai Cuisine" in the window, replete with expensive imported baskets and
weavings from that far-away land. Her hand reached for the finely stained French-style
door, and she thankfully shut out the noise and stench of the ritziest neighborhood in Rio
de Janeiro. She greedily soaked in the atmosphere of fine coffee, outrageously expensive
imported foods and quiet conversation, all luxuries in rowdy, samba-happy, coffee-soaked
Brazil. As always, she looked appreciatively at the iron and porcelain tile tables
scattered cleverly about the charming space, and chose one right in the middle of the
empty weekday calmness.
She sat down with the ease of being completely comfortable in her surroundings, placed
her book on the table, and smiled at the waitress who brought her a menu. A decaffeinated
cappuccino and an almond croissant were her choices, both specialties in a country where
rough coffee reigned supreme and caffeine was the engine of the workers, and the delicate
touch of a French pastry chef was sublime.
Having that sense that all women do of knowing when someone is watching you, she calmly
looked over to the table to her left to see a somewhat overweight middle-aged balding man
staring fixedly at her. Accustomed to the rudeness of Latin American men who felt it their
birthright to gawk shamelessly at any female, but still unconformed to such a breach of
manners, she stared back at him, not wavering her long-lashed blue gaze even slightly,
until he got embarrassed and mumbled something about how she had sat down right in his
line of vision.
He gave a little smile, and she smirked back, showing that she had understood him but
didn’t think it was amusing. Ashley pushed her long straight blonde hair back over her
shoulders and opened her book, studiously ignoring the man whom she knew was watching her
again, this tall fair aberration that had dared to stare back at his self-proclaimed
omnipotent Latin maleness.
It was a difficult book by a deceased and well-respected Brazilian author, Clarice
Lispector. Originally from the Ukraine, she had moved to Brazil as a newborn, and later
lived abroad in several countries, writing in isolation brilliant works of profound depth
while her husband went about his diplomatic duties. Each story was a study of human life
and emotion in its most basic atomic form. She stripped her characters down to the very
moment and wove the reader into the deepest synapses of their every sense. She delved
deeper than permitted, until the why of existence and action was displayed rawly for the
reader to absorb into his own emotion-based cells. The baby in its diapers as it struggled
to understand how to move across the huge expanse of the living room on its own, trying to
reach the life force of its mother tantalizingly just out of its reach. The woman as she
plunged into the cleansing waves of the ocean to wash away the impurities of herself and
begin a new life upon emergence from the water.
Although Ashley was fluent in Portuguese, she read with a small Portuguese/English
dictionary in her hand, because Clarice’s language was as old as the emotions she pulled
from her simple characters. She began where she had left off, feeling as always, the
slight anticipation and hesitation when she read Clarice, knowing she would be drawn into
the forbidden spaces of someone else’s soul. It was a delicious yet agonizing prospect
that left her dangling between her own desire to spy on another human being’s deepest
inside, and the hesitation of what she might encounter.
Martim had found his way out of the desert after stumbling, inhuman, in the unbearable
heat and preaching to an audience of rocks. He had found his way to a ranch, where, still
refusing to think about his crime, much less admit to it, he had convinced the owner, a
strong-willed and dominating woman, to hire him on as a common laborer, although he was
overqualified as an engineer for such menial work. His reawakening to his own humanity
disturbed him. His animalistic anonymity had been comforting.
As Ashley opened her dictionary for the second time in two pages, she heard the staring
man say to her in quiet Portuguese, "Ask me any word you’re looking for. I’m sure I
can help you out." Nonplussed, Ashley laughed to herself, and smugly not bothering to
look up, breathed back in the same low tone with just the right subtle touch of sarcasm,
"I’m sure you can."
She felt his embarrassment then, emanating from him like a sour orange cloud. She felt
his surprise that she had responded to his advance in perfect command of his tongue, and
she could practically hear his cells cratering in on themselves, shrinking and writhing in
a debilitating collapse of masculinity and dominance. Powerfully triumphant, she was
pleased that she did not hear another word from him, nor did she feel him looking at her
anymore. He drank his cafezinho rapidly and left just as quickly. She looked up
finally when he was gone to enjoy her cappuccino, her croissant, and her triumph.
Her cappuccino was perfect, with just the right amount of chocolate and cinnamon, her
croissant was delicate and sinful as she expected it to be, but her victory was hollow,
and she looked away shamefaced from the now empty table back to Clarice.
Eliza Bonner is an American, living and working at the electricity
company in Rio de Janeiro since 1996. She may be reached at (55-21) 211-2702 or firstname.lastname@example.org