Teaching photography online, I could work online in São Paulo just as easily as I did in New York. When Chris left in the morning to go to work, I reviewed schoolwork, and after lunch I took long walks that looped though the city’s central neighborhoods. Pretty soon they started to seem futile after a few days of pacing past persistent traffic. Foul fumes smother the city, and speaking no Portuguese whatsoever, it was difficult to navigate the sprawling metropolis. I found my new surroundings both exotic and dreary. Eventually, I discovered the neighborhoods of Jardins and Paraiso and the Deco-styled Higienopolis—locales offering slightly better photo ops.
Despite warnings from every Brazilian I had met, I drifted around with my camera unmolested. I was bored, but the compensation was the evenings and weekends I spent with Christine. We shuttled about in taxis, sampling the Japanese cuisine in Liberdade and the amazing Lebanese food in the mall under Oscar Niemeyer’s architectural behemoth the Copan—a gorgeous undulating wave of residential apartments dating to 1969 and anchoring São Paulo’s resurgent Centro district. Every night we returned to the security of our gated condominium. High up above the wealthy main drag of Avenida Paulista, cozy and safe, we cocooned ourselves in the bizarrely decorated artist’s apartment Chris had sublet for the duration of her stay. We made love and dozed in a huge hammock that stretched the width of the small studio.
We took the brief flight to Rio for a long weekend and found a cheap off-season rental apartment in Santa Teresa, a neighborhood Chris had fallen in love with on a previous visit. High up on the hill in the 17th-century neighborhood, we discovered the “open doors” art fair. The winding streets were filled with people despite the mild winter weather of the southern hemisphere. Tourists drifted in and out of artists’ studios. Residents swapped stories and gossiped. Everyone mixed happily, chatting at busy cafés and bars. It felt familiar and European. I photographed the brightly painted houses and ubiquitous VW Beetles straining up the bumpy hills. We ate Piranha in unpretentious restaurants. We had fun. I relaxed.
Monday was the holiday, but Chris had to take some unavoidable meetings, so I found myself alone for the day. I slept in and then walked over to a café on the steep turn of the Rua Pascoal. A young English-speaking waitress cheerfully served me coffee and sandwiches as I sat checking email. Afterward, warmed by sun and coffee with a mid-afternoon nap in my near future, I headed up the hill to the apartment.
After lunch, with the gentle Rio sun on my back, I followed the old tramlines up the hill and past the mural that memorialized the late-lamented light-rail system. Throughout the cobblestoned neighborhood, I found graffiti pleading for the resurrection of the beloved tram, whose service had been suspended after a horrible accident in 2011.. I took out my camera and shot a few frames of the huge painting. The cheerful, brightly painted faces of adults and children smiled out at me from the open side of the yellow carriage floating down the hill. A grinning driver confidently eased the train down the line. Beneath the mural, a couple of people stood in the shade waiting for a bus. They watched me silently as I framed them under the painting, their faces cast in shadows. I strolled around the corner to see the expansive view of the South Zone that was particularly clear on this crisp sunny afternoon, all the while checking the small LCD screen on the back of my worn but reliable Nikon D200 that dangled from my shoulder on its ratty old strap.
I stepped onto the narrow sidewalk, which led me along a low wall separating the pavement from a steep drop to a row of tumbledown houses, and I maneuvered to the best point to take a picture. About fifty feet away, spaced like midfielders, three young men dressed in long shorts and T-shirts started walking toward me. They wore sneakers as big as canoes and moved quickly—walking with purpose, hair cropped short, their bodies draped in the red, yellow, and gold of lightweight athletic fabric. As they neared me, they glanced around and closed in together, nodding their heads in my direction.
A rush of adrenaline flooded my nervous system as my heart started pounding. Stupidly, I moved out of the road up onto the narrow curb like a surfer trying to paddle around a shark—but it was too late. The wave crashed over me. I held my breath as I was momentarily smothered in a tricolor of logoed fabric. Growling in Portuguese, they shoved hard, their arms stiff and strong. My glasses disappeared off the end of my nose. A hard skull knocked into mine. The biggest of them scooped up my bouncing camera.
Instinctively, I rolled away from them in a 180-degree turn—vestiges of my sole move as a schoolboy striker. Back in the days of mismatched childhood football games, I could get away with it only once before a defender would anticipate the juke, the second time easily snagging the ball from clumsy feet.
I yanked hard on the camera strap and all of a sudden the pace changed. The turn had surprised my attackers as it had my childhood opponents. I staggered backward, pulling myself into the middle of the road. The frayed strap tightened in my grip as the heavy Nikon danced on a tightrope, the prize of a crime not yet complete.
I could almost hear the voice of my father, a West Country policeman full of cautionary advice for my teenaged self. His warnings to me—a boy leaving home for art school and the mean streets of 1980s Liverpool 25 years ago—resonated in the new menace of this new city: “Get out into the middle of street! Into the open! Make as much noise as possible!”
My attackers recovered and we scrimmaged in the street. They kicked me repeatedly. Our flailing legs snapped like scissors in a grown-up tug of war.
I knew I should let the camera go. The echo of my Dad’s voice encouraged me again, but I kept shouting, yelling at the boys to fuck off. Surely someone would hear the commotion and rush to my aid? I dug in, but while I remained defiant, the big guy would keep me squirming on his line while his pals pounded away at my legs.
A fist cocked back and flew at me. Knuckles bounced off my ear. Devastating kicks hooked my knee. The big man tried to reel in his catch. I wouldn’t hold out much longer! My barking voice sounded far away. Where was everyone?
Again, my father’s voice: “Let it go! It’s just a camera. I’ll get you a new one!”
The eight-year-old Nikon D200 hovered in the chaos; I still couldn’t give it up. Sheer bloody mindedness kept me upright. I’d made so many sacrifices recently, so little money was coming in. I was in a rut, considering a career move, maybe going back to school. And it was offensive! Here I was in Brazil on my first fucking vacation in ten years with virtually no money, my girlfriend using her precious air miles—virtually dragging me to the airport! Fuck you, you fucking crooks! Thugs! Cowards!
What the fuck was the matter with me?
They should have moved in to finish me by now. Why didn’t they hit me in the head, in the face? My assailants’ commitment seemed to waver. An impasse. A couple of decent punches, I’m sure they would have toppled me, but they insisted on standing back, using this peculiar martial arts kicking thing. Perhaps they were just shitty thieves. These bullies probably rushed stupid tourists all the time, and nothing like this had ever happened to them. Maybe all their other victims heeded the warnings and gave up their valuables without a fight. My resolve hardened. If I could just hold out for a few seconds longer, they’d give up and run. Weren’t they scared of discovery by now? Where were the fucking police?
A taxi stopped behind me and I looked back. The driver and passenger posed openmouthed at open doors and in the adjustment I fell to one knee. I felt the camera bounce off my hip with a clunk. I didn’t stop to find out what had happened. I darted away cradling the camera in my arms. I hid behind the taxi peering over the cab to see three blurry figures walking away, their heads lowered like skulking schoolboys retreating from a playground fight. One of them even stamped his foot. They’d given up.
The taxi driver and his fare found their voices. Hidden residents started to appear. Poco a poco, they joined an invisible chorus. “Policia!” Bombarded with curses, my adversaries scattered.
Gulping air, I darted down steps leading down to a small, improvised restaurant precariously arranged on the uneven roof of the house below. It was bright and airy with open shutters and plastic garden furniture. I prayed I wasn’t walking into a trap. Two old women swarmed around me like angels with bottled water and softly sung words. A young man appeared, their son, I think. He rested a huge hand on my arm and grinned.
“Esta acabado, terminou.” He said. It’s over.
One of the women pointed to my camera. She admonished me in the way of all matriarchs, silently, with a wagging finger.
“ I know, I know.” She was right. My father had been right. I finally understood.
The woman and I stood looking at each other. “My glasses. I need my glasses,” I said.
No response. I raised my shaking hands to my face forming a circle with my forefinger and thumb, pantomiming spectacles.
“Oh! Occulos!” The women chimed in unison.
They escorted me out to the street, guiding me firmly at the elbow. It was reassuring. I almost cried. We didn’t have to look too far. There they were, abandoned on the curb in two neat pieces split at the bridge. Turns out the mugger hadn’t been stamping his foot like a petulant child, he had been crushing my spectacles underfoot. Bastard.
Memories of my flight back to the apartment are vague. My hands shook so badly at the padlocked garden gate that safety eluded me for precious seconds. Finally getting into the high walled front yard, I dialed Christine’s office. My attempt to convey the situation to her secretary failed dismally.
Adrenaline still throbbed through my heart. Terror gripped me. Looking up, I saw a man in silhouette working on the roof, a silent witness to my performance. I paced back and forth in the small garden behind our lodging. Spluttering into my iPhone I thought about roaming charges, about flights home, about what my father would have said.
A taxi drew up outside. It was Christine—home early! She waved at me as she got out. Her cheerful expression evaporated when she saw the look on my face through the bars of the gate.
“I’ve been attacked.”
I surrendered. She debriefed me and guided me through first aid.
Nasty black marks had spread all the way up my calf and under the back of my knee. The skin of my right kneecap was scuffed from my fall in front of the cab. The rush had drained away at last, and when the pain arrived, it was excruciating. It was a deep, sharp pain that increased violently with any slight movement. My ribs ached, their kicks had reached higher than I thought. Over the next few days, the bruises on my left leg blossomed like oil swirling on water. The pain was unwavering. I lay awake at night, fearful that a slowly creeping clot would sneak up my leg and strangle my heart if I slept.
We returned to São Paulo as planned, and I struggled through the rest of my trip looking over my shoulder, fantasizing about bolting for the airport. No one would have blamed me, but I was scared to leave on my own.
When we got back to the flat on Avenida Paulista, Chris and I fought. Pressure at work was increasing as her project neared completion. My days alone without her were filled with paranoia and ‘what if’s? I couldn’t wait for her arrival at the end of each day but I resented having to rely on her. She lashed out at my newly born neediness.
“You blame me for this don’t you?” She said waving her hand at my purple leg propped up under a cushion on the coffee table.
“You think I twisted your arm to get you here so I wouldn’t be alone, don’t you?”
She looked so guilty and upset I didn’t say a thing. She felt responsible for putting me in danger. But I wanted to answer:
“Yes! It’s your fault!”
But Christine hadn’t attacked me! It wasn’t her fault! I was scared and angry and lashing out at her lashing out at me.
Our love nest became a prison cell. The bad abstract art we had laughed at when we arrived now cowered, glowing sickly in homemade picture frames.
The following night she called me to say she was on her way home and would I wait for her to eat dinner together? It took her another two hours to get back, so I said ‘fuck it’ and made myself an omelet. She was furious and made herself dinner in silence. The same expressionless anger I had witnessed in Brooklyn descended on the room. She ignored me and sat down.
Unprovoked I said: “Hey, don’t get mad at me. You were late. I offered to make you an omelet when you walked in,” I said.
“I’m eating my dinner.”
“What? I was supposed to wait? Like some sort of fucking houseboy? Is that what you want?”
Chris lifted her dinner plate and brought it down hard on the table. It broke into two neat pieces. Hearts of palm scattered on the knotted woven carpet.
“Can’t you just leave me alone? I just want to eat my fucking dinner!”
The explosion completely took me by surprise. I retreated from the apartment to hobble up and down the avenida, eventually returning to sulk in the hammock overnight.
I was just falling into a bitter sleep when she swept in from the bedroom and leaned over me. Her hands gripped the sides of the hammock and in the dark, her out-of-focus face loomed as large as the moon. Unveiled contempt appeared as a broad sneer on her face. Rolled up in the hammock, my hands trapped beside me, I once again felt the smothering embrace of my attackers. She started to say something quietly but I wouldn’t let her. I raised my voice.
“Take your hands off me. Back off,” I said.
She didn’t move. She was startled. She stood up and went back in the bedroom. My heart pounded, fear rose in my throat. I was suddenly terrified. I didn’t sleep. When she left for work the next morning in yesterday’s clothes I pretended to be asleep.
Trapped in the hammock I had felt cornered and I snapped at her instinctively as I had resisted my attackers. Was it my imagination? Was she leaning in to threaten me? To assault me? Surely not! How much of my current mood should I put down to trauma from the attack? Perhaps she was leaning in to embrace me, to kiss me maternally on the head as she had done during our first fight? That was completely possible. I never asked her what her intentions had been and I’m not sure I would have believed her either way—I was slipping into paranoia.
I obsessed about the attack in Rio. My thoughts seesawed from indignation to shame. What if they’d had a gun? A knife? Fuck. There was no best-case scenario; it would simply have been a different script shooting in my head if I’d given up my possessions without a fight—an alternate ending punctuated with self-doubt and emasculation for the hero. . I drifted through revenge fantasies. I searched the Internet for rumors of my assailants; for look-a-likes in arrested in similar stories of robbery and violence. The keyword “‘Brazil”’ gave me an unedited HD film shot from the rider’s point of view of the hijacking of his high performance motorcycle. Uncannily like a video game, the film speeds us through traffic, the helmet mounted camera often panning down to record the dancing needle on the speedometer. The soundtrack crackles in excited Portuguese until the bike slows down for a red light.
A motorbike draws up next our driver and a young man climbs off the back. He waves a silver pistol at our wide-angled camera. We withdraw with the victim who hands over the keys as he surrenders his bike. As the gunman struggles to pick up the heavy machine, his chaperone revs his engine in encouragement. A staccato pop-popping and our attacker flops down in front of us. An off-duty security guard watching the whole assault from his stationery car in a traffic jam, has opened fire on the bandit.
Helmetless with a faux hawk and sunglasses he cried for his mother as he bled in the street. Our crash helmet camera moves to the floor and our director appears in the frame to castigate the wounded would-be thief. He tells him he is going to hell. Ambulances and policemen drift into shot.
My appetite for revenge was sated, but absurdly I felt empathy for these crooks in their slapstick adventures. Many of them appeared to be barely more than children. It was a bold adventure for the motorcycle thief and he’d surely done it before. Without interference from the rent-a-cop, it would have been over in minutes. My robbers were opportunists. If they had waited for me to pass and followed me, perhaps cornering and pushing me up against a wall a few hundred feet in the direction I was already going, there wouldn’t have been a battle. Even by just stopping me and challenging me I might have considered the consequences and given up. They were terrible thieves. A disgrace. I had taught them a lesson. Yeah, right.
I just had to keep my shit together a few more days until I went home. My instincts had become unreliable. I believed I was moving through a troubled period and told myself I shouldn’t make any big decisions until I could think clearly again, at home.
I shuddered through the rest of my time in South America. Everything seemed damaged, my body, my pride, and my relationship. Christine and I maintained a fragile peace. Would we remedy over time? We had moments of genuine kindness and love that reminded me of why we should be together. Even with the pain in my leg, we engaged in bouts of passionate sex that seemed to temporarily salve our wounds. She looked after me, when I let her.
Read “Christine”(part 3) here.