As she stood at the curb waiting to cross the six lanes of Avenida Atlantica that separated the beachside from the row of those tall and singularly ugly living blocks—the pearls of Copacabana—she cracked her first smile that day. It was a private joke, and not even a very good one, but at least it chased away one of the black clouds covering her mental sky; she was wondering whether T.S. Eliot hadn’t had Rio in mind when composing the “Waste Land” and whether he hadn’t made a slight mistake with the first line—surely January was the cruelest month and not April.
Some people wouldn’t have agreed with her as to that, and she had to admit that she was particularly sensitive to the heat and was, therefore, biased against the glaring sunshine and the melting pavements. Both the cariocas and the tourists seemed to be doing just fine as they were lying or standing on the beach, frying to a crisp. Megan Hill had a hard time imagining how she could have derived any fun from deliberately turning herself into one of the half-naked sweaty bodies that littered the shore; it was excruciatingly hot in the shade already. As to the water, it was dirty and rough; garbage in all shape and form was knocked against the bather by aggressive waves.
Mrs. Hill had been living in Rio for seven months by then and she was starting to forget how excited she had originally been about living in this supposedly marvelous city. Of course she’d gone to the beach in the first days. Of course she loved the view of Copacabana and Ipanema. Of course she was as happy as a little girl when sipping her first caipirinhas in those innocent days immediately after her arrival. It had all seemed so charming, so relaxed, so full of alegria—to use the local parlance.
Seven months later, after a ten-hour wait at the police station to get her visa, there hadn’t been much of the initial attraction to the place left in Megan Hill. More and more did she feel that the six-hundred and fifty thousand hours that were allegedly allotted to a human being were being frittered away in this place. Behind the friendly smiles there lurked inefficiency and untrustworthiness—and a benevolent ignorance of this being a bad thing. Indeed, for cariocas a promise was made to be broken, and it would have taken them by surprise if anybody had taken any given result of this attitude as a personal insult.
And time wasn’t the only thing that was being wasted over here; Rio and the concept of value were mutually exclusive. Inefficiency, on its own, might have been excused; it was understandable that the heat slowed everybody and everything down. But this tropical nonchalance was coupled with exorbitant prices and mediocrity believed to be outstanding and unique. Cariocas were proud people—almost arrogant in their smug enjoyment of whatever their city offered.
By the time Megan Hill reached the supermarket closest to their apartment, she hated everybody and everything and would have killed for a bit of breeze. The best part of shopping was that supermarkets were wonderfully well-equipped with air-conditioning and one left both the heat and the sun on their doorstep. The first breath of air upon entering was so delicious that the scowl on Megan’s face vanished immediately and restored her, as if by magic, to what she originally was; a handsome if intense woman as close to thirty as to forty, endowed with a pair of sparkling, intelligent eyes, beautiful as emeralds. As she was walking among the rows of products in her striped summer dress and her straw hat, slim and tall and feline in her movements, she looked much less than her age and did not remain unobserved by the young shop assistants who—in greater numbers than necessary—were listlessly mopping the floor and blocking the way of the shopping carts.
The green eyes could not help emitting angry sparks as soon as their owner had noticed that half of the things she had been planning to buy were not to be had. The other half was there alright, but several things among them had become significantly more expensive overnight; the shop was part of the only chain in the neighborhood, which had no scruples when it came to exploiting such privilege. Go where she would, she had no choice but to pay five times more for, say, cottage cheese, than she would normally have to anywhere else in Europe or North America. And it was local produce, not even some choice export item hard to be had around there! And now they wanted her to pay eight times more for that dinky pot of curdled cow juice! Madness. Well, she wouldn’t act the tragedy queen over a pot of cottage cheese or even over the whole issue of grocery shopping. The third world was the third world, after all—what had she expected?
The third-world feeling had not disappeared with considerations of price and availability. The fun was only to begin at the cashiers. Or, better to say, three rows away from the two cashiers that were punching the cash machine and bagging the items with the speed of sloths, as the lineup was that long. Megan had seen longer queues in her life—hadn’t she braved that of the Vatican several times?—but she had been long enough in Rio to know that appearances could be even more deceptive over here than elsewhere. The lineup seemed treacherously short compared with the amount of time it would surely take to get to the cashier at last. She knew by now that five people here were the equivalent of fifteen in her native Canada, so fifteen were forty-five. No. After ten hours at the police station Megan could simply not face another such ordeal. They would have to tough it out without the groceries that night.
“What do you mean you couldn’t get me tomatoes and OJ? What on earth prevented you from getting this much done in one whole day?” Mr. Hill was incapable of being sympathetic when it came to his personal comforts, especially not when the neglectful individual had no day-job and no salary to bring up in her defense.
“Ten hours at that bloody police station, my dear. I literally threw out roots and the bureaucrats had to cut me out of my seat.” Mrs. Hill’s voice had that special pitch that told her husband that she would not tolerate any hard words or crankiness just at present.
“Good lord. But why am I not surprised? What do you expect in a shit-hole like this? These people thrive on bureaucracy; it gives them a sense of importance, a semblance of order, and, most importantly, lots of jobs for their gigantic population.” It was easy for Mr. Hill to philosophize about the reasons of the ten-hour queue when he hadn’t had to partake in it. Not that he hadn’t had his share of frustrations every day both at his workplace and out of it, but sympathy usually came to him when he was also a suffering party.
“Anyway, that bloody supermarket was another zoo and after the police zoo I simply didn’t have it in me to do it all over again the second time within a day.” Mrs. Hill explained, or rather declared, signaling that the conversation was either over or it was in need of a change of topic.
“All right, all right. We’ll survive. Actually, you know what? Don’t bother with cooking; we’ll order in. Some grilled chicken and beans. They can’t screw those up and they are among the very few things that aren’t too expensive around here. And now sit down, let’s watch some TV.” Mr. Hill’s daily consolation was a glass full of limes—for the vitamin C—and ice cubes swimming in vodka, consumed in front of the TV while watching American serials, which seemed intellectually challenging compared with the homegrown variety.
“Gosh, I’ve been sitting all day staring out of my head. I don’t feel like sitting and staring some more. I’ll go and take a shower and make the call about the frango-feijão feast. If we’re lucky they’ll send us a bird that hasn’t been spinning around the spit all day.”
“But you’ll miss The Show!” Mr. Hill’s favorite program was on between seven and eight and he would not for the world have budged during this interval, and if work kept him later than usual and he missed his Show… that was very bad. Back in Canada he couldn’t have imagined that he would ever become a second-rate-serial junky of the first order. This was what Rio did to you; a speedy softening of the brain until you took to this intellectual birdbath like duck to water.
“Well, what I’ll miss is forty-five minutes of commercials studded with fifteen minutes of bits of old episodes that have been on a hundred times since we’ve been here. I think I’ll survive that.”
“Your loss.” And here the ongoing commercial block finally gave way to another five minutes of the show and so Mr. Hill lost all interest in his wife and whatever there existed off the screen.
Their rental apartment—advertised as a “luxury” flat like all else meant for expat-consumption—was costing an arm and a leg, and so far, besides the price, there hadn’t been anything else about it that could justify such a denomination. If one bent out of the bedroom window far enough to risk falling out from the fifteenth floor, one could catch a glimpse of the top of the Sugarloaf—hence the ad’s text “with a glorious view.” As to the alleged “rooftop pool,” a veritable mafia of pigeons and seagulls had control of the azure hole that was the size of an ostrich egg and was filled with guano and floating feathers.
But “luxuries” aside, hot water in the shower was a cause for celebration, and enough of it to properly rinse off one’s long hair was an epoch-making event. Megan had long been aware of all this and as she stepped into the vertical coffin also known as a shower cabin, she was wondering whether she would be in luck that night. Abundant and warm, the water gushing out and sprinkling her face and washing away the inevitable daily urban grime was the first pleasant surprise and therefore the highlight of that day.
The low-point, however, was quick to follow in the shape of sudden darkness and the subsequent disappearance of hot water—the flat had an electric boiler. Foamy all over, shivering from the sudden blast of icy water, Megan clambered out of the shower cabin, banging an ankle and a knee in the process, but fortunately not slipping and splitting her skull at least. The smallness of the flat came in handy now that she had to feel her way out to the living room without seeing a thing.
“Randy, where are you?”
“Take an intelligent guess. I’m sitting where you left me a minute ago; in front of the TV, staring into darkness for hell only knows why. Probably a bloody blackout again.”
“Sorry about your show, darling.”
By then she was sitting next to him, dripping shampoo on the ratty divan and all over the white-tiled floor one associated with hospitals. They had had several blackouts before, but the timing had never been so bad. What with the greater than usual frustrations of the day, and the show being on just then, and the shampoo not yet rinsed, and the dinner not yet ordered and beyond the possibility of being cooked in such pitch dark, it was really hard to keep one’s equanimity.
A few minutes elapsed without any of them saying a word, both trying to believe in the possibility of the blackout lasting only for a few minutes, but not succeeding. They were not proved wrong and the blackout was still a blackout ten minutes later.
“I’m hungry.” Mr. Hill’s voice was like a whimper.
“Didn’t you have a late lunch with that Petronio Garcia?” Mrs. Hill knew that her husband had been looking forward to this lunch for over a month now, hoping to get to know that seemingly likeable local businessman.
“Cancelled last minute. Urgent business out of town for the rest of the week. Mentioned a dinner for next week instead.” The previous whimper turned into an offended bark.
“Why am I not surprised? And why do I have a hunch that next week’s dinner-plan will turn into a lunch-project for the week after?”
“You are stating the obvious.” The offended bark became offensive.
“Then why are you so upset about it? And don’t put it out on me.”
The conversation was left off here for another ten or fifteen minutes, during which interval nothing had changed. It was still dark and they were still hungry and upset.
Then suddenly Megan started to laugh. She had a gurgling endearing laugh, catchy and liberating. Soon Randy was also laughing without knowing exactly why, the tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Can you believe this shit?” He asked what was more of a rhetorical question.
“Surreal, grotesque, unbloodybelievable.” She seconded.
“You know what? Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“You mean out of Rio? Are you mad?” How gladly she would have been rid of that city, but how impossible it was while Randy’s contract lasted! Another nine months at least! And maybe an extension if they were satisfied with his work. What an “honor” that would be! What an unmixed “unblessing”!
“No, silly. Let’s go out and get something to eat. We can’t very well continue sitting hear in the dark, listening to each other’s gurgling gut.”
“Fine.” She didn’t have it in her to cover up such anticlimax by some feigned delight at the prospect of a mere dinner. “For a second I thought you want to go… never mind. I’ll rub off the shampoo with a towel and throw on a dress. It will be a sticky business, but what the hell? If I get stuck to my seat you’ll have to pull me out as gracefully as you can, that’s all.”
“First we have to get down fifteen flights of stairs. I hope to God our dear doormen are out there with flashlights in case anyone wants to leave this hellhole.”
“Oh, if you’re worried about going down how do you feel about coming back up?”
“I don’t even want to think about it.”
The whole street shared in the blackout and it didn’t give one a warm fuzzy feeling to walk around that part of Copacabana in the dark. Since Randy had got his smelly flip-flops stolen on the beach and had had to walk home barefoot they knew that nothing was unworthy of being appropriated either by stealth or force.
A few blocks further the lights were on and consequently the crowd was even bigger here than on a day without neighboring blackouts. The outside bars and restaurants were teeming with tourists and locals, and the shortage of tables and chairs did not seem to cause any difficulty for new arrivals; there were no scruples as to sitting down on the pavement with a bottle of beer in hand. Brazilians are loud people; whether they are happy, angry, or sad, they shout. Whether they are in small numbers or large, they shout. Whether they are sober or drunk, they shout. Of course a large group of happy Brazilian drunks is the deadliest combo. When it is a Friday or a Saturday and a blackout strips away the last semblance of order, all hell breaks loose and a veritable bacchanalia ensues.
Mr. and Mrs. Hill were in no mood for an improvised swill and gorge. They were so tired and hungry that they wouldn’t have had any scruples as to sitting down on the pavement with a drink and a plate of something, but the noise was unbearable. They decided to keep on walking and try to find some quieter place further on. They walked briskly, unconsciously keen on reaching the Ipanema area that was somewhat safer and cleaner. They new perfectly well that only the naïve and uninitiated would waste time on trying to flag a taxi on a Friday night during high season; although every second car was a yellow cab, each and every one of them had a passenger snugly ensconced on the back seat.
Local swells were convinced that in Ipanema even the grass was greener; a snobby little bubble in that gigantic city of more than six million people, Ipanema was considered the safest and trendiest area with the largest amount of good restaurants. Mr. Hill directed his steps towards one of these posh eateries where he had already had a few business lunches that were served with relative promptness. The street where it was located hosted numerous other restaurants and the street scene, in terms of crowd and noise, was not unlike the one they had just left behind in Copacabana, except for the fact that it was a more stylish debauchery that its partakers were engaged in.
Judged from the outside, Arlindo was deceptively peaceful; there were no tables outside and it did not boast of an all-glass front, so it remained to be seen just how full the place was. Stepping inside, the sudden wintry chill spoke louder than any five-star rating—the cooler the classier. As to visual effects, the lights were so romantically low that our friends for a second thought there was a blackout reigning here as well. To get the hostess’ attention was a mission akin to the impossible, but after what had seemed to be an eternity, that curvy lady with the cinnamon skin and the unnaturally slick and straight hair turned to them at last and informed them that they were looking at a good forty-five minute wait, which they were welcome to spend at the bar area.
To go on and find another place and most probably get into the same predicament was not an attractive alternative, but then the waiting wasn’t, either. Anyhow, they crawled to the bar, ordered drinks, gobbled up the gratis peanuts and stared at the flat screen TV broadcasting football—Mr. Hill making an attempt at following the game and Mrs. Hill resting her eyes on the green grass without blinking.
“Randy, where on earth are you going? Hey, wait up!” Far more than forty-five minutes had elapsed when Mr. Hill suddenly jumped up from the bar stool and rushed out of the restaurant, with his bewildered wife running after him. “Randy, for Christ’s sake, what is it? We were almost there, we were about to be seated! Wait for me, at least!”
Mr. Hill gradually slackened his pace and his wife was able to catch up with him at last and also to catch her breath. The pavements were still vomiting the accumulated heat of the day and the air was unbearably humid. The sticky remains of the shampoo didn’t constitute a comfort-factor, either.
“So have you gone mad or what has got into you?” Megan was peering into his face, trying to ascertain whether he was angry or drunk or what.
“Out of town for the rest of the week my ass. What an insincere bastard!”
“Are you talking about that fellow Petronio? Don’t tell me you saw him at the restaurant!”
“Then I won’t tell you. But there he was, being seated as soon as he entered the restaurant, in the company of six other suits and some skirts. Clearly some business hobnob.” His voice was like a jealous lover’s.
“Did he see you?” Megan inquired.
“I’m sure he didn’t in that dark barn. Plus he was busy being pleasant to those others. What a hypocrite!”
“I think you’re making too much of all this. It’s not the first time smiley locals stood us up. And they do it to each other as well. You shouldn’t have taken it so personally and you definitely shouldn’t have spoiled our chances of finally getting a table and eating something.”
“My appetite is gone.” Mr. Hill said, referring to his disgust with the carioca manners and mores, but also sustained by the gratis peanuts and the two pints of beer.
“Good for you. Anyway, I’m ready for bed.”
The walk back home was even less attractive than the walk had been to the restaurant, but by then it was late enough to hope for an available taxi. As they picked their way on the undulating pavement—tree-roots had no mercy on the nicely decorated sidewalks and their wave-pattern was seconded by a wavy surface—their eyes were on the ground and so they didn’t notice the five ebony figures blocking their way until they almost knocked against them.
They were boys; young boys acting tough. Half naked, with baggy jeans showing the top of their underwear, they looked like a bunch of rap-artist wannabes. Although they seemed as if they were playing at being rappers, the knives in the hands of two of them had nothing playful about them. Their oozing a mixture of booze, sweat, and unwashed clothing told its tale; they were obviously as far from being sober as from being well off. Probably some favela-dwellers, mugging and drinking away the spoils on a Friday night.
Mr. and Mrs. Hill were certainly older than the local toughs and had also had some alcoholic beverages during the evening, but fear is a great booster and a sporty background also comes in handy. Taking to their heels, they sprinted down the road, with their attackers staring after them with filmy eyes.
A couple of minutes later they happened to reach the well-lit entrance of a hotel where they stopped running and sat down on the pavement, panting and cursing. Mr. Hill was the first to catch his breath and he signaled to the doorman for a taxi.
“Why am I surprised?” He asked suddenly.
“Well, maybe because this ‘mugging business’ is the first carioca cliché to be proved true. I’m actually surprised about other things, too. Just think about it; the fact that I didn’t die of fear on the spot is surely another surprise. And then our running performance—I am impressed. Did you expect to have all this in you? I’ve always imagined I would die after having run two meters in this furnace.”
“Maybe you’re going local.”
“It amounts to the same thing. You know what? Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Tell this to the doorman; he’s supposed to be getting us a cab.”
“No, I mean out of Rio. Let’s go Home.”