Arcos da Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
It was Sunday night; cold and drizzling. He left the Riachuelo Street, walked through the Lapa Arches. He was holding an empty Itaipava longneck bottle, too much of a good boy to simply dispose of it. He walked to the Joaquim Silva street, found the one open bar—a boteco really. Two men played pool in the back, silently, only the billiard balls clacking together, a random football league game rerun on a mute TV hung up high, old enough to have witnessed Pelé in his heyday. No Pelé now though, only Botafogo and Fluminense FC fighting off relegation zone earlier that week. He put a coin in the jukebox, picked Tim Maia's saddest song and chugged down cheap beer like it was water. At some point, the owner let him know the bar's closing. He grabbed another beer and ventured out in the streets again, sitting on the steps of Selarón's staircase, all the tourists long gone. There was nowhere else to go and truth was—he'd never walk up those steps anymore.
Maybe he knew that.
São Paulo Mountain Range, Brazil
I rest my arms on the parapet, watching the lights bouncing off the artificial lake. It’s cold and the shawl around my shoulders really is one of those things I dearly regret buying from a department store summer sale, because of course it’s polyester—and of course that’s never made a difference until now. I savor the champagne before I swallow it; I’m not an expert, and honestly not even a champagne person, but even I can tell this is not the cheap supermarket bottle HR gives us for working the New Years shift.
Merda. I shouldn’t be here.
Behind me, the party feels vibrant and warm, the musicians—a guy wearing a tasteful linen suit and a matching panama hat as he strums the guitar next to a tall, curvy woman in a flowy dress—seem to have been transported straight from a 1950’s bohemian night in Ipanema. The bossa nova rhythm sounds familiar in her rich mezzo voice and he joins her for the chorus with his own soft, baritone half-spoken sentences. A few couples try their hand at the dancing venue, where I’ve been until a few minutes ago, hypnotically moving my hips to the music as Hector guided me, before seeking refuge in the patio behind the main hall. Not only I shouldn’t be here, but I also shouldn’t be here.
And I can't even leave this place, because I need a ride. And I don’t think there’s a single uber driver in a hundred kilometers radius, not here in the mountain range and certainly not this late at night. So seeing Hector again and facing a two-hour long car trip sitting right next to him in awkward silence really is inevitable, but I sure can put it off for as long as I can by hiding—and maybe getting into some kind of alcoholic intoxication so I don’t have to witness any of it and only regret the hangover the next morning. Or mid-afternoon if we’re being honest here.
Not for the first time I drink down the entire liquid inside the glass, not even tasting the small bubble explosions of the expensive champagne in my tongue, and it burns its way to my stomach just like any cheap alcohol would. Good. I turn my head around too quickly and when I blink the world around me spins. Wobbling, I turn my back so I have somewhere to lean on, and am suddenly filled with the sensation that I just pushed something off the parapet edge with my elbow. I felt it. Shit. I suppress an exclamation point as my heart nearly jumps off my chest.
My handbag, with my smartphone, credit cards, documents and my goddaughter’s very first picture. I’m sure of it. Merda, merda, shit. I lean over the balustrade trying to find it in the lawn below, the sharp concrete edge pressed against my hipbones, to no success; it’s too dark.
I take a quick look around me. The artificial lights on the lawn tell me that it’s not really that tall—we’re not even on the second floor. Still, it’s not level with the patio and so I can get there, I’d need to go around the ginormous mansion through the entrance. I have no idea how to do that. I examine the situation. The bushes down below must be exactly where my handbag is.
"Fuuuuuck." I say once again, contemplating my stupid plan, filling my lungs with the cold night air and gathering my long yellow dress all the way up above my knees. I hoist one leg over the parapet and thank the family flexibility for being able to do the kinds of things only a ballerina half my age should be able to do.
The stone feels cold between my exposed legs and gently so as not to scrape the insides of my thighs, I slide to the other side. One thing’s pretty obvious right away—I completely underestimated how tall the difference between the patio and the lawn is. I keep sliding down until I’ve opened a full split against the wall, hanging from the side of the building, holding several exclamation points in my chest. It’s a tough situation, but if I let go, I’m assured to roll inside the bushes just like my purse and break something. The ground can’t be too far away…
“Hello?” I hear a male voice coming from above me.
Right now?! I curse myself. My panties must be completely exposed. I’d bet money on it.
I release a groan. Finally, right as my hands are about the slide off the support, my foot finds the grass.
“Everything alright?” The man asks just as I put both feet on the ground. My balance isn’t great in these heels and I have to hold my dress up so I don’t fall. I’m such a hazard. And so stupid. Why am I still wearing heels? But I feel strangely excited with all the adrenaline rushing through my veins..
“Uh, yes, perfectly alright.” I answer, trying to sound like it while I lean on the wall that now knows my panties way more intimately than any man ever has. “I’m just…”
Pathetically rescuing my purse? I don’t finish that thought
He doesn’t seem to take the hint and leave, though. Surprised, I realize that I’m still holding the empty champagne glass. Honestly…
“Hey!” I call the man and raise the glass to one of the interspaces between each concrete column of the balustrade. “Can you take this for me?”
He silently retrieves it from my grasp. I hear him chuckle and it makes me both irritated and amused. I sigh. What am I doing here, again? That’s right. Handbag.
I crouch down without touching my knees on the ground, my heels digging into the grass. I blindly search for my stuff, wishing one of those light spots were turned in my direction
“Could you…” I try to clean my now damp hands from the grass dew by brushing them together. “Use the flashlight on your phone and point it down here? Please?”
He chuckles again.
“Sure.” I see his hand coming through the same gap from before.
He turns the flashlight on right above my face, like I’m a fugitive in an action movie with cop helicopters. Helicopters. I laugh at my clever pun and shy away from the light so it won’t cast a shadow over the bushes. I’m so fucking drunk, oh God.
I kneel down again but I still can’t seem to find anything there. I can’t have lost my documents. I’ll have to call my bank, or just use the app—isn’t that what normal people do these days? Except that I don't trustboth Apple and my bank to work together. Also, I lost my phone. What if they rolled inside the artificial lake? Seems like a bit of a stretch, but...
“What are you looking for?” The man asks, directing the flashlight around. I follow it, searching, worry growing in my forehead and making me sweat. It was so cold only a few minutes ago.
“I dropped my purse.” I say.
My worry joins my irritation and I flip.
“Yes, a tiny fucking handbag, the kind women are forced to use in events like these because god forbid they have pockets .” The alcohol is making me really hot and I wanna throw the useless polyester shawl inside the goddamn lake. "And then have to count on random assholes to keep our stuff inside one of their literal half a dozen suit jacket pockets. What century is this?""
“Wow.” Is all he says. What an asshole, although I probably shouldn’t complain too much. I lower myself on the ground again, this time without worrying about my dress. I must look carefully. “So, what color is it? The purse, I mean.”
“What color? What the hell…” I turn around, wishing I could let go of all my anger on the poor samaritan, when I see him hang something over the parapet. “Oh.”
“Is this the oppressive handbag?”
I rise myself slowly but I feel really lightheaded. How much champagne have I drank today? Is good champagne stronger than bad champagne? I face the wall—there’s not a chance, sober or otherwise, I’ll make it back up. Not a chance in hell. The fact that I even made it down is nothing short of a miracle.
“Do you think you can… Pull me back?” I ask the man.
He laughs this time, truly laughs.
“I don’t think that’s possible.” I hold the shawl around my body. “You can go around and meet me back here.”
The obvious answer, but I hesitate. My phone, my money, my goddaughter’s first picture…
“Here. Take my phone.” He shakes the device. “So you can use the flashlight. We can switch when you get back up here.”
Or so I don’t think he’ll steal me. Of course, it’s dumb of me to even think that someone in a place like this, in a party like this, would wanna steal something from me, pathetic really. But not uneard of. Either way, I get on my tip toes and take his phone. It’s an Iphone just like mine, except like five generations ahead. Yes, I’m fighting planned obsolescence. He's not.
The flashlight remains on and I point it ahead of me.
“Thanks.” I say.
“Not a problem.” His voice has a nice baritone timbre, which makes me think he’d make a nice duet with the carioca singer, except he has no Rio accent. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have any accent whatsoever, and I don’t say this in a pretentious Paulista way, because I recognize I do have one. He's just one of those rare birds. “See you on the other side.”
I mumble something even I can’t understand and hold my dress up to my knees. I feel as if I’m floating, the alcohol affecting both my balance and my judgment—it doesn’t even occur to me that he could have simply thrown my purse over the balcony instead of giving me his own phone.
Sneaking around the party hall unnoticed proves itself to be a hard task. The bossa nova has evolved to a quiet—if there's such a thing—samba, and the pleasant singer’s voice has filled my ears. I take a few canapés from a waiter in the hopes of sobering myself up, but when a second waiter passes by with a tray full of sparkly glasses, I catch myself holding two of them before I can even blink. It’s never too much.
I don’t scan the crowd, fearing that my eyes will find Hector’s like a lighthouse in a dark, foggy ocean night. The golden rule of spyware is if you can’t see them, they can’t see you either. And yes, I just made that up. It does sound wise, though. I walk around the tables and the people, my reflexes only slightly compromised, the phone still poorly balanced between my fingers. The average age here goes between 50 and 70—lots of gray heads. I see the door to the patio and walk over there, hoping I’m blended enough not to have drawn any undesired looks.
The balcony is only sparsely illuminated, making use of the floodlights in the lawn and whatever's coming from the hall, but no light for itself. It's enough, though, and feels very intimate, like a restaurant on Valentine's might. It’s also empty, save for… I almost trip again and can’t entirely blame the several drinks I've had this time.
The man near the balustrade, the one holding an empty glass and my bag, and whose phone I hold so precariously, is sitting in a wheelchair. I feel flustered and lightheaded—did I really ask him to pull me up the balcony?
I swallow the uncomfortable feeling that’s settled down my throat and walk up to him.
"Hey." I shoot him a crooked smile I hope is not too awkward. The shawl is sliding down my shoulders.
He turns in my direction, only then noticing my presence, and slowly raises an eyebrow. I was right when I imagined that by his voice, he couldn't have been much older than me.
"Ah, my friend from the other side." He raises the empty glass in salute. "I was wondering if I'd have to rescue you."
I chuckle awkwardly, checking my dress, stained vaguely green at the right hip from one of the times I tripped. The hemline might be beyond repair. Yuck. I didn't pay too much on it, just like my shawl, it's cheaply made by underwaged workers in Taiwan or something. It didn't put a dent in my own underpaid Brazilian worker wages, but I always buy clothes hoping they'll last for years, regardless. Just yet another part of the Broke or Woke game I play with myself.
"I had some issues." I turn around. "As you can see."
He shakes his head.
"And took a few detours?" He points with his head at the drinks I'm holding.
"Something like that." I shrug and get closer to the parapet. I hand him his phone back. "Thanks."
He unlocks the screen and blocks it back quickly, turning the flashlight off. When he raises his eyes, he sees me holding one of the glasses in his direction and politely declines it.
"I'm driving." And that settles it. A responsible driver. I can respect that. "You didn't take any crocodile pictures for me, did you?"
I laugh, but also frown.
"There aren't any crocodiles here." I say, taking the second glass back. The more the merrier. Are there crocodiles in the Atlantic forest? I honestly can’t remember. "Are there?"
"Of course there are." He looks at me like I'm crazy. I don't know if he's taking a piss at me. "Broad snouted caimans."
Sounds vaguely familiar. "Is it big?"
"What would you consider a big caiman?"
"Bigger than those… pet lizard things."
"Of course it's big." He laughs. "Not as big as a black caiman, though. But like two meters long."
"Two meters?" My eyes widen with surprise. How long since I've last been to the zoo? "There's even bigger than that?"
He nods. "How tall are you?"
"One sixty-five. And a half." I proudly add. I'm the tallest woman in my family in at least five centuries. At least.
"That wouldn't be a problem to the black caiman, because it's like five meters, easy." He blinks.
I consider his words. I can't even picture in my head what a five meter-long reptile looks like. My size awareness, especially drunk, is nonexistent.
"Are you a biologist?" I ask.
"Not even close, but thanks." He raises his hand as if about to run his fingers through his hair, but brushes his head instead and rests his hand in his neck, as if getting used to the hair being so short. "I just had a particularly strong reptile phase as a kid, right after the dinosaur phase."
"Dinos are cool." I climb on the parapet and take my heels off.
"Not with feathers, they're not." He clicks his tongue, moving his chair closer with a single stroke in the left wheel. "Imagine Jurassic Park but with giant chickens. Pathetic."
"Only people who have never ran from a normal sized crazy chicken would say that." I laugh but only realize the faux pas in telling a guy in a wheelchair that he couldn't run from a chicken too late. Shit. Blood rushes to my face and I look away from him. "Hm, sorry."
He stares at me but doesn't look offended.
"Goose are way worse."
"I'll take your word for it." I'm glad he doesn't address it. It's getting cold again. "What's your name?"
I ask quickly, before I lose my nerve and suddenly we'll be friends for months without knowingg each other's name because we just forgot to ask, and it's too awkward now and you've been unknowinly addressing them by their dog's name, but they also don't say a thing for the same reason. Not that this ever happened to me. But seriously, who names their dog Hannah.
"As in Benjamin?"
"As in Bernardo." He corrects me.
I blink and stare at him for a moment, then I have to hold myself back from bursting into laughter. "Oh my god, no one over the age of six and younger than sixty has that name."
He shrugs, smiling all the way. "What's yours?"
"It's not like you have any advantage in the cool modern name department either." Ben dramatically rolls his eyes. "My grandma's name is Livia."
"Hey, it's eternally age appropriate."
"A classical indeed." He agrees.
I shrug, sipping the champagne, only now realizing that it doesn't taste as good as it did before. I stare at it.
"Do you think that they start us on really good champagne..." I theorize, inspecting the golden content in my glass. "and then later dilute something in water because they know everyone's so drunk no one's gonna notice it’s cheap ass alcohol?"
Ben's smile reaches his eyes and he gets these slight crow's feet at the corners. He looks like someone who smiles with his eyes a lot. Pretty charming.
"And you can tell because…”
"Because I haven't drank too much." I roll my eyes.
"Of course." With his arms on the balcony, he rocks himself back and forth in his wheels, as naturally as if he’d been pacing. He looks comfortable enough in his chair that it definitely has a feel of forever. "Why aren't you inside? Are you one of those people who hate samba or something?"
I cringe my nose. I am not.
"I'm just hiding out here. The music is perfect and I love dancing." I smile and drink some more. I feel strangely honest, maybe it's the liquid courage. "You?"
"Oh, I love dancing to these fast paced rhythms. I’m great at it." Ben says as he slaps his unmoving knees that have been quietly drawn close together by the sleek design of his chair the entire time we've been talking, and I stare at him for a moment, unsure of what my reaction should be. He raises one of his dark eyebrows. "It's a joke. You can laugh now."
And I do—It's low but it's honest. I'm starting to think he doesn't take himself too seriously, which is always a good surprise when it comes to men. I shake my head and sip at the champagne again. Dammit, they definitely dilute this in something cheap.
"I meant what you're doing here.”
"I know." He looks amused. "It turns out I'm also hiding.
I raise my glass and propose a toast.
"To the runaways." I say, feeling light and happy. God bless this cheap shit drink. "May we be successful in our quest to go by unnoticed."
"Saúde." He raises the empty glass I gave him back when I was still on the lawn. "Although you're much more likely to be successful than me."
"Yeah. They'll ask for the woman in the yellow dress and someone will ask which one of them." He shrugs and I can almost see his point coming. I start laughing before he goes on. "I’m much more recognizable. I suppose I have my good looks to blame."
The laughter fades away slowly and in a moment of distraction or maybe drunkenness I feel my balance throwing me back, forgetting for a fraction of second that I'm sitting with my back facing absolutely nothing.
"Ah!" I try to counter my own weight with my arms and stop myself from falling off the balcony. I feel something holding my thighs and I use the extra weight to return to my original state. All the content in my glass is now gone, the scared gasp still inside my throat.
"I think you should climb off of there." Ben says and I see his arm is the one thing holding me, still tightly pressed against my thighs. "That cheap diluted champagne seems to be working just fine."
I flush and my space awareness disappears as my heart tries to recover from the inadvertent suicide attempt. I look back and a wave of nausea climbs up my stomach—was this this tall earlier? I don't think so…
"You're right." I hold Ben's hand when he offers it to me, surprisingly calloused, and jump off the parapet and back to the cold patio floor, my balance once again compromised as I land and once again am rescued by Ben. "Shit."
He still holds his arms in my direction, as if trying to prevent my face from meeting the floor the way it seems to be so eager to do. I've always thought the way men take care of women when we're drunk and they're decent enough not to take advantage of it pretty funny. I wonder if that's what's happening here and come to the conclusion that it must be. Men always have second intentions.
"You good?" He asks me for the second time today, sounding worried.
I nod, making sure not to shake my head too much and risk losing my balance again.
"Just a little tipsy.'
"Yeah, right. C'mon, let's go sit over there." He turns his chair and notices my hesitation. "No one's gonna see us."