June 2012

Juntos

Michael was always looking for love. He longed for it, from the pretty boys in the bars to the dark-haired angel who restocked shelves at Safeway – even the men his friends set him up with who were always looking for a face more handsome than his.

There’d been attempts at love that were close enough to make his heart flutter, but they’d all fizzled in one way or another. Eyes wandered, sparks died.

Then the fevers came and nights were spent drenched in sweat instead of in the arms of men. The virus attacked his nervous system and soon his legs jerked below him as if he were marionette without a master. When medication calmed the infection, his friends urged him to get on with life. But the men had gotten younger and his legs continued to betray him. He turned forty in February, alone and not likely to see forty one.

He lamented as much during a visit with his friend Kelly, but she was short on compassion.  She poured creamer into his coffee, and he watched as the dark brown swirled to tan, transparent to opaque.

“Maybe I should just move back home.” Michael sipped the coffee, but the fungus on his tongue blocked the rich taste.

“Listen, I wouldn’t go to your parents for sympathy. It’d be like going to a butcher for a flower arrangement.” Kelly set her coffee down. “How about a vacation? Haven’t you always wanted to go to Argentina?”

“Brazil.” But he’d wanted to go not for the sake of travel, but rather the beautiful Brazilian boys with caramelized skin and an endless supply of affection for Americans with open wallets.

“So go to Brazil. What do you have to lose?”

Nothing, he supposed. He had extended vacation time that wouldn’t do him much good in the afterlife.

“Come on, I know a travel agent who can get you a great deal on a package tour. You can see it all.”

“I can see what I want to see at Will Rogers Beach.”

Kelly sighed. “You know, there is more to life than hot men.”

“Says the lesbian.”

Kelly paused, her fingers tapping on the mug. “There are so many different kinds of love, Michael. Having it come from a beautiful body doesn’t make it more any more real.”

Michael scoffed. “I can’t seem to get love from anyone these days, ugly or beautiful.”

“Why do you always look past what’s right in front of you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Kelly stood, emptied her coffee cup in the sink with a splash. “Maybe you’ll find out one day.”

 

 

***

 

Diesel fumes choked him as Michael stood waiting to board the renovated school bus for his tour of Rio. Electrical tape held cracked glass together and he wondered what elaborate kickback Kelly’s travel agent must have gotten to book a tour of this caliber. He cursed her as he struggled up the stairs with his cane.

The bus carried him and twenty other passengers, families and couples, across the city. He watched people.

It wasn’t Carnival, it wasn’t New Year’s — it was just a day. Exhausted women in blue work dresses chased after buses, yellow taxis crisscrossed the streets carrying men in expensive suits. It wasn’t so different than the streets of downtown LA.

As they passed the aqueduct, its columns spun in front of him and he wondered if one day – long after he’d died – people would drive by its ruins, talk of the city that once was so alive. A city could die too. Or was it only humanity that was so fragile?

“We are passing to the north Corcovado Mountain.” The tour guide, a young girl with a bright smile and dingy white shorts, gestured to her left. Her English was halting and limited. Michael doubted she understood a word of what she said. Reading mechanically from a torn notebook, she smiled at the disinterested tourists as they came upon rolling hills lined with colorful homes.

“This is Santa Teresa, home to many artists.” Her black ponytail slipped across her shoulder and she looked to the driver who offered her a thumbs up.

Through the favelas, as they moved from the tourist district to the outlying zones of the city plagued with crime, brick transformed to wood, shoes turned to bare feet, pavement to gravel.

After passing through a mountain cutaway, the Atlantic appeared crystal and azure, like the California sky on a perfect summer day. Michael’s breath caught, his legs calmed for a moment. Beauty – not in eyes or body, but spread out before him within reach.

“Now we stop for food at the water.” An older woman stood on the bus’s front steps and cranked open the door as they rolled to a stop. Air brakes hissed. The passengers moved quickly, anxious to snap photos of Christ the Redeemer waiting to embrace them from above. Michael was the last to lumber off the bus.

He limped to a sea wall and rested on his elbows. The blue-green waves lapped at the shoreline, back and forth, as if to say to him: Well? You’re here, what now?

Around him, his fellow travelers dispersed, snuck onto rock walls or tiptoed out to the shallow sandbar. Small children ran squealing through mists of broken tide.

He coughed away the bubbling loneliness. With his clumsy feet slipping across white sands, he sat at a rock outcropping under the shadow of Christ. Propping the cane on his lap, he closed his eyes, listening to the gentle hum of the water cresting, then retreating. The air was fresh and briny. It filled his lungs. He exhaled and a flood of tears followed.

Why had he come here? Why was it so hard to accept that what he wanted was no longer in his grasp? It was no more real than the stone figure atop the mountain.

The surf crashed onto the shore. A spray of saline fell on his face.

“Senhor?”

He forced his eyes open to a blur of blue and white. His chest heaved.

“Senhor? Come, please.”

A hand tugged at his sleeve. He blinked away tears to see the tour guide pointing back to the bus.

“Is it time to go already?” Michael wiped his face. “Okay, just give me a second. Please?”

“No. Senhor, please come.” She grinned.

Michael sighed, struggled to his feet. She took his arm.

“I don’t need help. Really, I’m okay.”

“No, no. Vamos comer juntos.”

“I don’t speak Portuguese.”

“Yes, Portuguese.” She nodded and pulled him up the stairs of the seawall.

The wind gusted, blew her straggly ponytail into his face. He paused at the bus door but she tugged again at his sleeve.

“Yes, come. Vamos comer.”

“What?”

Around the corner, at a far end of the parking lot, the bus driver and the older woman sat at a picnic table. Michael stopped.

“O senhor quer comer com a gente?”

“I don’t understand.”

“You…” The girl scrunched her nose. “Come. We eat, juntos.”

“Eat? What, me? Oh no-”

“Ola, Michi. Voce vem!” The bus driver waved.

“Is this your family? No, I can’t. ” He waved her away, but she shook her head.

“Yes, you too. Eat. Juntos.”

She led him across the blacktop to the table and gestured for him to sit. The bus driver stood, flashed a toothless grin, rested his arm around the girl.

“Ola senhor. Voce come com a gente, por favor.” He reached for Michael’s hand and shook it firmly.

The woman smiled as she ladled soup into green ceramic bowls. Michael’s face flushed when he saw four place settings, napkins in bright colorworks, dishes of mango and papaya. He sat down in front of a plate of steaming rice and beans.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat for a family meal. His parents had pressured him to stay away for years.

The girl tore a piece of bread from a loaf and placed it on his plate. She nodded. “Please.”

The food was a luxury, for once not dulled by the lingering medication or infection on his tongue. It tasted rich and warm.

“Good?” the girl asked. Taking his bread, she dipped it in the soup and handed it to him.

“It’s perfect.”

She gestured at their small group. “We eat. Juntos.”

“What’s juntos?”

“Juntos. Together. Like family.”

Michael’s heart leapt in his chest as he took a bite of the fresh bread. “Family?”

“Today, yes. We are all family.”

The girl offered him a brilliant smile and he returned it. Far off past the idling bus, a flock of heron flew over the sparkling Atlantic to the rough waters further out to sea.