Beyond the curved horn of the long beach cove, an approaching storm had curled high above the sea, coiling back upon itself where its force met a mountainous green shore and the city clustered at its feet. It's belly: a saffron and golden glow of dancing light and writhing winds. Everything beneath it, this side of it, close to me, gleamed as if poised on a precipice. The afternoon was dying as afternoons do.
On the sand a mother/sister roamed absently in circles talking on her cellphone, her child/brother kicking a soccer ball in long racing games of catch with himself. The surf fell and fell again, tamping its rhythm into the warm sand beneath our feet.
On the inner shore of the sand, the city somehow silenced by this beautiful abstract light, entranced, began to wake its pores, lightbulbs and headlamps. Thick sheets of blurred dampness rushed in. The light blotted out and night fell into us with a cool thick rain. Joggers and cyclists, strollers all pushed on. The air warm enough to make the drenching pleasurable. The recent dark exchanging their forms for silhouettes, t-shirts and cloth clinging saturated. The darkness also converted the silence of the light into noise: wet tires and reverberating engines. The ground became a dark mirror puckered with innumerable constantly spitting mouths.
In the halo of the juice stall neons, glistening plastic chairs. Clusters took shelter, smoking and telling jokes. Shirtless a vendor continued to hammer at his cart's wheel and axle. Slowly the density of time swiveled around and became thick: it had been fun, but now, relentless, each rushed to their destination. The evening had persuaded us to rush; its grace had mutated into force.
I hurried into the city, seeking a restaurant that might serve something I considered edible. Beneath an awning, a beggar with crumpled withered legs splayed sideways on a skateboard drove his face into a tin-plate of rice and beans. Hunger erased the line that is sometimes imagined between animal and human. Turning the corner, caught in a swirl of excess luminosity leaking from a group of stores, surrounded by other beings plunging in and out of the wet dark, I consulted the photos of maps that I had put on my camera.
A boy of 15 approached me, gesturing with his wrist rotating in that universal gesture of looking at a watch. I began to flick thru the camera menu for the one where time is visible when his hand closed around my shoulder satchel strap and he tugged it and held as he whispered: “Money. Money. Give me money.” He was staring in my eyes; he was shorter than me by a foot; his face was honest; I liked him. The bodies kept moving around us. Behind him in a spill of light, I could see a few of his friends, curious, watching the game's evolution. Without thinking I wrenched his arm away and stepped back off the curb into the street. In my mind I heard a phrase from the tourist tips: give them everything, don't struggle. Instead I turned and moved away, giving him the finger as he laughed and languorously, without any fear, strolled back to his perch. When he saw my gesture he mimed it; and for a moment I panicked, imaging them coming after me. A gang of adolescents ripping me off and kicking me into the gutter. But they didn't. Now I was turned around, on the path back to the hotel. In the streets the river of cars still ran. I crossed the street among the jammed steel. A scent of butchered meat seeped from a glaring open-faced diner. Tired men sitting in packets over charred flesh.
Hunger and revulsion again took me onward: into a store without a name, a crowded glistening upscale neighborhood grocery. Two thin black men with surgical masks, smocks and gloves, conversed over the fruit while they sprayed it with moisture and threw the rotten bits into boxes at their feet. A bistro-bakery-pizzeria was embedded in the store. A heavyset white man wearing glasses that slipped down his nose from sweat was eating a pizza covered in fresh arugala. At his side a medium coke. When I saw the prices, I dove onward. Heading home to room service. My last attempt to evade it was a brief sign language performance with a mute hot-dog vendor who had a kitchen installed in the back of a pickup truck. His prices were good but he only served meat.
Now its late, I've written this story. The hotel sent 'a boy' up with my meal. Overpriced but ravenous I ate. The 'boy' was in his mid 20s and dark skinned. A blend of the butchered and the butchering. Overhead, the low resonant hum of the air conditioner breaths through the ceiling. And now the blast of a TV pumping advertisements from the room next door. It will be with me all night. Time for a sleeping pill and ear plugs. Luxury itches itself and giggles. It takes two pills to put it to sleep.
When day emerges from behind thick drapes, the city is mute and half-awake beneath a disheveled sheet of gray mottled clouds. I have slept. Heart palpitations have diminished; my headache is gone; after a curiously bland breakfast in the hotel, I cross the highway to the sea for a morning dip. At the water's edge a man in a black shirt, long grey pants and dress shoes is quietly dancing with the ocean's skin. Retreating and advancing with tiny footsteps to evade its foam; he scrutinizes the horizon with a tangoists concentration. He is from Denmark and has not slept. In the water, undertows nurse the sand from underfoot; hips gyrate; arms ejaculate toward non-existent support; I film froth. The surf rises and topples like a drunk powerful snake; I am too timid to dive into such waves.
That afternoon I cycle to the botanical gardens. Behind its high walls, having paid a mild cash admission, surrounded by botanist graduate students, guards with walkie talkies and sparse clumps of affluent tourists, I feel safe once more to use both camera and audio recorder, to duck my head down and concentrate on the lens alone, to let images beguile, to be immersed and forget protecting my pockets. Breath and beauty coincide. A mossy wall flecked with swaying light beside a slow irrigation stream; a black ant with golden stripes, racing along a rust flaked window ledge that surrounds a building that appears to house nothing (an ornamental temple to air); two small snails migrating in a rivulet of water in a ditch.
In an outdoor snack courtyard, --rose-hued gravel, several large trees, a few plastic tables and a crumbling white colonial wall-- I buy a mini pizza that arrives sliced into 12 tiny squares. Two black female servers with white plastic hair nets. A missing front tooth in one smile; eyes that cowl and recoil. Unknown birds singing unseen. The beginning of a sunburn itches my spine etched in the shape of my satchel strap, salted with sweat. In front of the washrooms in the next courtyard an attendant sleeps on a bench using a toilet paper roll for a pillow. Her face slack and calm like a shadow. I write a poem which includes the lines:
time becomes tame, I enter
into it merciless as a cash register
Cycling home along Ipanema beach, rushing to return the rented bicycle, already an hour late, the sun hot and concentrated on burning everything, the sand stretching in a trajectory for kilometers, its curve echoed by the cycle path, the five lane road, and the row after row of pale highrises with glinting windows, gleaming as if they have sailed here to rest and lookout over the sea. I stop where the bicycle path passes a shallow tidal pool, beneath the sea wall, covered in a thin glaze of froth. I like the angle, I like the late afternoon light; I lock the bike to a square wooden pole with peeling paint, and step onto the sand, planning my shot: the water's surface as reflective mirror and the seemingly infinite urban beach beyond. A visual parable of refracted distance.
Almost immediately, beneath the roar of the surf and the glare of the sun, I hear a groan; my attention turns toward it and focuses a few meters to my right where a boy (perhaps 9 or 10 years old) is lying on his side in the shallow tidal pool. He appears to be having a mild epileptic seizure. Short jerks of energy traverse contorted limbs. His eyes are crumpled, sockets rolled backwards, jaw clenched, arms rigid then subtly fluid, feet twitching, and a low moan is emerging from twisted bitten lips that hover just above brackish bubbled water. Does anyone else see him? Within my line of sight: none. The beach drops off and everyone is faced out toward the water. How long has it been going on? I don't know. My first instinct is to film it. I rationalize this instinct: I'm not a doctor; he's not drowning; he's breathing. Nausea. I imagine raising the camera and filming epilepsy in paradise. Involuntarily, my ethical quandary resolves itself without any further conscious thought, I move toward him.
He leaps up laughing, hysterically happy, pointing at my worried face. Races halfway to the sea wall to receive accolades from a trio of friends who have been observing this private performance, then he cartwheels howling past me and does a pile-drive victory dance that he must have learned from watching professional sports before rushing into the water, spins backwards, laughing, still watching me watch him, as a wave cascades over his shoulders and his face disappears in the ocean's frothy smile.
Embarrassed, I hurriedly dip the camera in the puddle as planned. Feeling foolish, absurd, gullible, rigid, duped. After a few seconds of filming in this strange posture with a camera half-dipped in a puddle, out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the trio of friends hop off the wall and begin circling in behind me. Stricken by my inability to understand the situation, I stop filming and as I unlock my bike he pauses curious and concentrated. Not knowing how to express anything in Portugese paralyzes me, so that in another singular reflex, not knowing what else to do, I flee the scene of my criminal stupidity. Where the fetid sun strikes sparkling shore, teeming with umbrellas and tans, past the coconut stalls and taxi lines, and the wide crowded avenues where busker clowns do jigs and a pair of jugglers take turns standing on each other's shoulders in front of lines of cars waiting at the street lights, my legs churn space into a distance that thickens behind me, congealing protectively around the wound of my innocence. I imagine returning to pay him to replay the scene, re-shooting it from a low angle, a child spasming in paradise's playground puddle beneath an indifferently beautiful sky. I see again the fat face of a jowled elderly tourist lounging in a rented chair beneath a branded umbrella on the sea wall who witnessed expressionless the lure and baiting game.
When I return home I find the brief puddle shot shows a mirrored man running on the beach. A smudge of foam on the camera lens that could be a cloud.
jhave  glia.ca (2008)