When the square comes into view, I freeze. My heart loses its mind and forgets its rhythm. I take a deep breath and instruct it to beat. I count for it, and concentrate on lifting one foot after the other. Every cell in my body knows I am entering your domain. I may find you on the stairs of the church. You may be sitting, legs splayed, slurping a pineapple popsicle. What will I do then? What do lovers say after a year apart? How do I break the silence?
I walk past all your favorite hangouts. My breath squeezes from my lungs in spurts. I feel faint as I discover each place vacant. Not only aren’t you there, but neither are your friends. No one. Where is everyone hiding? I walk on, past the craft shops and the restaurants. Past the museum, the church, and the bus stop. Past the street venders and the Baianas posing for tourist photos. I take the elevator down to Cidade Baixa. The road to the market is chaotic. Cars careen around corners, streaming past pedestrians without pause. I scurry across the street with a throng of daring boys. Adrenaline pounds in my ears. The men at the market are selling jewelry today. They approach me, arms dripping with shell necklaces. I smile in their direction seeing nothing. My eyes are glued to the fountain where you taught me to shamelessly tongue in public.
I approach the capoeira circle and hide behind a pole. If you are there, I want to see you first. I want to be invisible. I want the delicious pleasure of catching you unaware. All the usual players surround the wooden stage. The tall one with cinnamon skin and freckles. The short one with knife-sharp features and an intimidating stare. The skinny one with the rubber bones and dominating smile. But you aren’t here. I back away quickly. I’d rather suffer in silence, than ask them for information. American Express, they called me last year. This year is none of their business.
I take a seat outside the dirty wharf restaurant. Your voice is humming a capoeira song in my head. I savor the scene: the fishing boats, the blinding glare of the sun, the raspy-voiced gossip rattling behind me, the laughter of children splashing in the sea. We sat at this same table the last time we were here. I told jokes. You laughed with your mouth full of your favorite fish. Today reminds me of that day: clear, blue, impossibly sunny. Come back to me, you’d whispered when I left. I have, I say out loud in English. Where are you?
On a whim, I decide to go to the beach. I get to the bus stop just in time to wave down a speedily approaching bus. The bus screeches to a stop. I hold onto the door and climb into the too-high stairwell. I fish a bill out of my pouch and push through the turnstile. As the ticket taker is counting out my change, a skinny street kid jumps on. He lowers himself to the ground and slides under the turnstile. Ten more little men burst on behind him. Be careful, you told me once, when you saw street kids harassing me for my crackers. I refuse to show fear. Their rough voices and hungry eyes bounce all over the bus. I clasp my pouch in my fist and pretend not to notice them. They can’t steal what they can’t see. I have no pockets full of jingling change. No food for them to beg from my fingers. Besides they aren’t looking for prey today. They tumble into their seats talking in husky voices too adult for their frail frames. The last boy clutches a brown bag, waving it in the air before plunging his face into it. Glue sniffers, I think and a tiny feather of sadness flutters in my throat
The bus driver presses the gas pedal and sound explodes from the back of the bus. The plastic seats are drums; the kids beat and beat and beat. A charged rhythm emerges, a crazy samba fills the air. I drape my arms across the seat back in front of me and rest my head in the crook of my elbow. The pounding vibrates through the metal seat frames, into my bones, into my blood, into me. They chant lyrics of love and longing with breathless exuberance. Each voice strains to be louder than the other. Passion is this moment and every moment I have spent in this crooked seaside city. The ocean bursts into view. The kids break into laughter before the song ends. I shut my eyes and the sea embraces me. Tightness seeps out of my body, a sensation of safety slips under my skin. The bus hurtles down the hill, whips around the bend, and jerks to a stop.
The beach is full today. The thin brown girls are wearing colorful bikinis. So are the fat women. So is everyone, wearing their skin as if it were a suit of clothing. I lean on the wall overlooking the beach and peer at the men below. I imagine you among them, ripping through ferocious repetitions of sit-ups, taking your turn at the parallel bars. Oi, a voice behind me calls out. I turn and see a young man I don’t know. Aren’t you Carlos’ girlfriend? he asks. I am, I say. You’ve cut your hair. Yeah, I smile. A pause rests between us. I am embarrassed to ask. Have you seen him? He’s not at the beach today, he says, I don’t even know if he’s in town. Thanks, I say, and wave good-bye.
I go down on the beach anyway and sit in the sand. I shade my eyes and stare at the sea-lined horizon. I imagine you walking to the water. You touch your hand to the surface and make the sign of the cross over your body. Then you jump in and disappear into the waves. I close my eyes and follow you into the ocean. Behind my lowered eyelids, I see droplets of water covering your face. I feel the waves pushing me against your body. The saltwater taste of our first kiss invades my throat. I remember you whispering and tugging at my bikini bottoms. I was afraid someone would see us, but you taught me not to care who was looking.
Published in Black Silk: A collection of African American Erotica © 2002