A message was waiting for me at the front desk in Salvador da Bahia. Flávio would meet me later in the Largo do Pelourinho, a short taxi ride away. I unpacked. It was still afternoon, with time for a nap. I wanted to look fresh after so many hours in the air from Los Angeles. I caught myself wanting to look fresh for Flávio.
Leaving the hotel at sunset, I was heavy-eyed and hardly fresh, but the ocean air quickly revived me. I found a cab in the queue along Ondina Beach, a stretch of sand and coconut palms just east of the point where the waters of the Atlantic converge with All Saints Bay. The sky had turned hues of lavender and orange over the bay when the taxi dropped me off at the Pelhourinho’s pedestrian zone. Then I made my way up the slope of the plaza, its bulbous, irregular cobblestones challenging my balance. Baroque-era houses, churches, and municipal buildings surrounded the square, a perfect, preserved gem of colonial architecture.
The charm of the place belied its history. The Largo do Pelhourinho—Pillory Square, in Portuguese—was once a site of atrocities, the selling and flogging of enslaved people from Africa. Images of that suffering flooded my mind and chilled me. The feeling wasn’t unusual but simply in my nature, an abiding concern for others in trouble or danger, near or far, present or past. I was, after all, an immigration lawyer.
I sighed, glancing around. The square glowed in the twilight. A bit farther uphill was the meeting place Flávio had specified, an outdoor café near the Casa Jorge Amado. I took a table, ordered a cafezinho, and began to relax. After waiting so long for the dictatorship to fall, I had returned to Brazil, and soon I would see an old friend again in a city I’d never visited during my younger years of living in the country. I sipped my coffee and checked my watch, crossing and uncrossing my leg, trying not to appear impatient. Would my friend stand me up?
At last, I saw him, waving as he hurried across the plaza. Even from a distance, how could I not recognize Flávio, brimming with his infectious charm? He looked dapper in his silk shirt and tight jeans, the outfit accentuating his slim build. But as he came closer, his figure seemed more angular than I remembered, as if he’d lost weight in Brazil. The result of a different diet? An illness? Then he flashed his signature smile, wide and brilliant, lending dazzle and volume to his face, and I knew he was fine, the same Flávio, handsome in his way, with that curly hair and olive skin, those lime-green eyes.
Offering no apology for his lateness, he greeted me in a gush. “Oh, Ryan, how marvelous to see you. Que maravilhoso.” There was that smile, brightening the entire Pelourinho in the falling dusk.
“How good to see you, Flávio, ” I said, awaiting the bear hug sure to follow. Flávio’s hugs were engulfing, the pressure of his embrace emanating from much of his body: shoulders, chest, and waist. As he squeezed tighter, I felt the solid curves of his pectorals and the jabbing boniness of his hips. I surrendered to the hug and allowed myself to enjoy it. A few hours in Brazil had been enough to warm my blood.
“Well, Flávio,” I said as we sat down, “that was quite the welcome.”
“Just to show how happy I am that you are here,” he replied, his English still fluent after several years away from the States. “My favorite American, as cute and youthful as ever.”
"Thanks, but you’re too kind.” The waiter served a cafezinho for Flávio and another for me. Between sips, I had the opportunity to look more closely and noticed the gray in Flávio’s hair and the tiredness in his face and eyes. Perhaps the transition from America to Brazil had caused the change. He had hoped to make a life in California, yet his dream came to nothing. A practicing attorney in Brazil, he found only odd jobs and volunteer gigs in Los Angeles.
“You do look wonderful—” Flávio said after downing his cafezinho in one swallow, “with your blue eyes and thick blond hair. Or is your hair a little darker than before?”
My cheeks grew warm with a blush. “You know my hair’s always been dirty blond,” I said, deflecting the attention to my appearance.
“Verdade, the California sun used to lighten your hair. It is brown now, and your skin, it is too pale. But to get ready for Brazil, did you not sunbathe on the beach in Santa Monica?”
“No, I didn’t go to the beach.” I shrugged, though his playful flirting secretly pleased me. “Besides, it’s winter in L.A., and even in winter, you know how quickly I burn.”
“Claro, sei muito bem,” he agreed, resting his tanned forearm by my arm to demonstrate the contrast. “Poor American, how very white. I suppose it is why you love us Brazilian guys, with our rich skin tones and dark hair. The guys you love to woo, fuck, and leave behind. Ha-ha.”
“Don’t be cruel,” I said, bristling to have been cast as the seducing and abandoning type.
“I was teasing.”
“And maybe describing your m.o. rather than mine.” Or was he jealous, fishing for gossip about my love life? “By the way, do you have a boyfriend?” I asked, unable to suppress my curiosity about his love life.
“A couple of boyfriends, but not the one I yearn for.” With a mischievous tilt of the head, he added: “Opa—could you be the one, Ryan? My one? My savior, meu salvador? We are together in Brazil. Who knows what might happen?” He grinned. Surely, he was playing with me again. Or was he?
“Such a flirt you are, Flávio.” My face grew hot, and my body pulsed with an old desire. I was back at the East Los Angeles immigration clinic, seeing him for the first time, locking eyes. I had worked pro bono at the agency for a year when Flávio started his volunteer stint. Right away, he let me know that he wanted me, yet in the end, I chose friendship over romance even though I was single and lonely for a relationship.
“A flirt? I learned my lesson in Los Angeles. Flirting with you never worked, Ryan.”
“Actually, you were very persuasive—,” I said before stopping short, reluctant to elaborate on my difficult choice years before. After I’d met Flávio, I reminded myself of the fragility of new romances and the vulnerability of foreigners to America’s capricious immigration system. Why take a chance on someone, however alluring, who might steal my heart and decamp for Brazil in three months?
“We are speaking of the past, Ryan. Flirting or not, I was serious a minute ago.”
“Hmm. How do you know I’m available?” I could flirt, too. At least I could try.
“I know. You would not have traveled to Brazil by yourself if you had a boyfriend.”
I chuckled. “You have a point.”
“Well, now that you are here in Salvador—so single, available, and bonito—I get to show you around, to show you off. Tomorrow is Friday, and my work schedule is light. I will take you on a tour of the city, like you did for me in your hometown, Los Angeles.”
“It’s a date.”
“Oh, and Philadelphia is my hometown, not Los Angeles.”
“Pois é, I remember,” he replied with a frown. “Why are you so literal with Flávio? So mean?” His grimace appeared wounded, but I couldn’t tell whether it was mock or authentic.
“So, what’s the program this evening?” I said, sidestepping his question since I wasn’t certain why I’d snapped at him. Had Flávio’s intensity felt overwhelming, prompting me to push him away once more, just as he was drawing me in? Or was I anxious to find a restaurant? The Pelourinho was notorious for petty crime, and the two of us—a Brazilian and an American tourist—might be targets for a roving band of punks.
“Tudo bom. We could wander through the Largo and have a bite to eat or go on a drive to the Lower City. I know a club there with a drag show not to miss.”
I fished in my pocket for change to pay for the cafezinho. “I vote for having a bite to eat. I’m hungry.”
“Okay,” he said as we walked along the Largo. “There is a restaurant nearby that serves vatapá and muqueca de camarão and all those dishes of our region. Very traditional, very romantic. Or farther down the hill, there is a churrascaria. The grilled meat is to die for.”
“Let’s live a little and go to the romantic one. We should celebrate my first night in Bahia, not to mention my first time in a free Brazil.”
“Oooh—” he said, beaming, “a celebration. Lovely . . . Vamos.”
The traditional restaurant was romantic enough to melt my resistance and rekindle my fantasies about Flávio. With candle-lit tables covered in white linen, chairs of carved rosewood, and wainscoting of Portuguese azulejo tile, the place oozed the charm of provincial Brazil. Our table had a view of the Pelourinho, but I concentrated on Flávio in the candle’s flicker, his skin glistening like honey, his eyes lustrous like green satin. At home in his native city, he seemed free of the worries that had plagued him in California.
We had ordered a bottle of Brazilian wine with the meal, but Flávio was drinking too fast, talking at length about his new job at a law office, recently purchased automobile, and renovation project for the cottage he’d acquired in Salvador’s suburbs. He had plans aplenty and his share of challenges. I sat back and listened. As I already imagined, reestablishing a life in Brazil had not been easy.
Finally, he paused. “And how are you doing in L.A.?” he asked. “Are you really still single, or do you have someone special?”
“No, no one special. It’s been forever since I’ve dated, and there’s an epidemic on the loose, with no end in sight.”
“The plague has arrived here, too,” he said, shaking his head. “So—you are alone. But you have your sweet little bungalow in Silver Lake and your law practice. Are you busy?”
“Busy enough.” Soon after Flávio had returned to Brazil, I resigned from my staff position at a nonprofit agency and entered private practice. “A couple of human rights clients and the standard immigration cases to pay the bills.”
We skipped dessert and drank cafezinho.
“What shall we do now?” Flávio asked. “A ride, perhaps? My car is not far.”
“Whatever you want.”
Two cafezinhos later, we left the restaurant. With more tourists strolling about, the Pelourinho had come alive and taken on an aspect of magic by night. The streetlamps glimmered, illuminating the old buildings and their ornate façades, shuttered windows, and wrought-iron balconies. Despite the visual distractions, I somehow remembered to keep my eyes on the cobblestones underfoot. Not Flávio. Giddy from the wine, he stumbled and stopped cold.
“Opa, I wonder where I parked my car,” he cried, his hands gripping his head. After searching for ten minutes, we located his vehicle parked askew on a steep street. Two or three dents pocked the doors, and a patina of road grit had reduced the yellow finish to dusty ochre.
“Ah—my fusca.” Flávio had used the Portuguese word for “beetle” to identify his Volkswagen.
“Your new car.”
“Not exactly. I cannot afford a new automobile.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,” I said, regretting a remark that had called attention to his pinched finances.
“It is all right, I know what you meant. This car is new for me, so new that I have not applied for the vehicle certificate.”
“Oh?” My stomach churned as I pictured us ensnared by the local policía. “Is that a good idea, driving with no registration?” The question had popped out before I realized it might have sounded admonishing.
“Take it easy, Ryan. Fica tranquilo.”
Instead of tranquility, other emotions were stirring: anxiety and my old inclination to caretaking. “Over there,” I said, nodding in the direction of a police officer detaining a motorist.
However discreet my warning, I had already slipped into an old role—that of the protector, originating in childhood when I routinely defended my mom (and myself) from my father and his hair-trigger temper. As an adult, I’ve occasionally protected clients at risk but avoided playing that part in personal relationships. Flávio was an exception. Too often, I found myself looking out for him in Los Angeles, especially when he required my support in adjusting to a new city and country. Now that I was in his country, his city, I wanted only to let him take care of things.
“Calma-te,” Flávio said, “you are with me,” but I felt hardly reassured as he maneuvered the car from its parking space, made a hasty U-turn, and sped uphill.
“We will drive through the Pelourinho’s outskirts.”
Ignoring a warning sign, he ventured onto a narrow street. Halfway down the block, a swirling red glow lit up the residential buildings on each side. A squad car had come from behind, cutting us off and forcing Flávio to stop at the curb. A tall, dark police officer emerged from the cruiser and approached the VW’s driver-side window. The cop’s tan uniform hung like a slack bag on his gangly frame, blinding us momentarily in the reflected glare of our headlights.
“Your ID and vehicle certificate,” the officer demanded in clipped Portuguese.
“Well, sir—” Flávio stammered, “here’s my ID. I purchased this car recently—I believe it was last month—and do not have the certificate yet.”
“Let me see the transfer form.”
Flávio rifled through a stack of papers in the glove compartment. “Ah, I found it, sir. Here—.”
The officer lowered his voice to a growl. “According to this form, you bought your car three months ago. You should have applied for the certificate within thirty days. There is no excuse for delaying to apply or, for that matter, driving in a prohibited area. Please exit the vehicle. Both of you. Now!”
After two more police officers had materialized, the trio escorted us to the idling squad car, a small, four-door sedan of Brazilian manufacture. The tall, dark cop ordered Flávio to sit in the passenger seat and motioned me to sit in the rear. Once behind the wheel, the officer asked for my passport and inspected it under the beam of his flashlight. The second officer, a strapping fellow white as a Swede, took Flávio’s car keys and jumped into the VW, revving the engine and waiting. The third officer, his complexion sallow and eyes steel blue, slid in beside me. Flávio squirmed in his seat. My heart was pounding, but I stayed still.
“Vamos embora,” the lead cop barked. We drove off. Through the rear window, I saw the Swede tailing us in the Volkswagen.
“Now what?” I whispered to Flávio in English, assuming our captors understood little of the language. “See the mess we’ve landed in?”
“Do not worry, Ryan. I will talk to them. I will handle it.”
I grunted. Then, the tall, dark cop turned and smirked at me. “Imagina, Mario,” he said to his colleague, “um gringo, e seu amigo brasileiro. Já pensou?” A gringo, and his Brazilian friend. Who would have guessed?
“Que sorte, sim, Francisco,” Mario answered. “Que sorte pegar um gringo.” What luck to bag a gringo.
My gut had tied up in spasms. “Please talk to them,” I said, close to Flávio’s ear, “and find out what they want, what they intend to do with us.” He managed a weak nod and sank into his seat as our two-car motorcade left the Upper City and merged onto a crumbling freeway—four lanes of concrete bisecting the city.
“Flávio, ask them—” I repeated but couldn’t continue. My stomach was heaving, my pulse racing.
Suddenly, I was in Rio fifteen years earlier, arrested by two military officers, handcuffed in the rear of a van, and thrown into a crowded holding cell. A soldier led me from the cell into a bare hall where three army officers sat behind a table on a platform, shuffling papers and producing a document, read by the colonel, the one in the middle, wearing the sunglasses. The government had revoked my visa; I would have to leave the country immediately. But what was my crime? That I had dated a young Brazilian man with an army general for a father? Or befriended too many left-wing Brazilians? Regardless of the reason, my time in Rio was over—my three-year run as a community worker and teacher. A week later, I was on a plane, headed home to Philadelphia.
Bringing me back to the present, Flávio traded a few hushed words with Francisco.
“What did he say?” I asked, leaning forward to speak into Flávio’s ear, my cheek brushing his hair, which felt damp with sweat on my skin. An hour ago, the touch of his curls might have aroused me. No longer. Adrenaline drove me now, not desire.
Flávio mopped the beads of perspiration from his brow with a handkerchief. “Just that we are in trouble for—”
But the police radio interrupted him with a crackle. It was the Swede. “Que passa ali, Francisco?”
“Nada, porra,” Francisco answered, sounding disgusted. “Vamos enrolando aqui, sem proposta nenhuma. Acho que vou dar mas umas voltas pela auto-pista.”
Their Portuguese was fast and rough, laced with slang and profanities. What I did catch caused the fine hairs on my neck to prickle and stiffen. The cops were taking us on a spin—stalling and holding out for a deal. In the gloom, I could see only the flashes of oncoming headlights and the blur of roadside buildings. Every so often, Mario snorted and glowered at me, his breath heavy with food and beer. Francisco kept his eyes on the road and fumbled periodically with the radio to call the Swede.
I had left my wristwatch locked in the hotel-room safe but guessed that we’d been riding around for thirty minutes or so, passing buildings already passed before, until the Upper City came into view again. Francisco was retracing the route, a likely waiting game to extract the maximum payoff. A twinge of panic rose through my body. I couldn’t show it, so I breathed in and out from the bottom of my chest. Deep, smooth breaths.
The breathing bolstered my courage. I knew it was time to act. “We’re going in circles, Flávio,” I whispered. “Ask them what they want from us.”
The exchange with Francisco was terse. “They will take us to the delegacía,” Flávio said, his voice trembling. “We will have to pay a fine, and they will impound my car. My fusca!”
“And what did you say? Did you offer them money? They want a bribe.”
“Probably?” Flávio seemed helpless, paralyzed by fear. I was frightened, too, but I had dealt with bullies before—my father in childhood and the Brazilian military officers in my twenties. “If we don’t pay the cops off soon, who knows what they’ll do?”
He didn’t reply, but I was hardly about to give in, not this time, not as before when the junta’s authorities had me by the throat. Laying my hand on Flávio’s shoulder to calm him down, I said, “How much money do you have?”
Pouco, after paying my part of dinner. I am short on funds since relocating.”
“Okay, here—” I said, slipping him the cash I had in my pocket without mentioning the wad of American dollars tucked inside my sock. “Tell Francisco it’s all we have. All he’ll get.”
The negotiation was brief, resulting in a deal: one hundred dollars in cruzados to end the nocturnal tour, release Flávio and his car, and deliver me to the hotel in Ondina.
A radio transmission later, Francisco slowed down, the Swede following suit. Both vehicles stopped on a shadowy shoulder of the highway. I shuddered, imagining the worst. Would they take the money and car and abandon us in the dark? Or—?
But as agreed, the Swede left the VW and approached the passenger side of the cruiser. “Que tal trocar de lugar?” he asked Flávio, who glanced at me, hopped out, and made a beeline for his car as if the reprieve might expire any second. Relieved at first, I quickly felt deserted, exposed. Flávio was on his way home while I remained in the company of Francisco and the Swede in front and Mario beside me, the three of them guffawing about the easy windfall they’d just scored. Did they intend to extort an additional bribe?
With Flávio’s fusca now a receding speck on the highway, Francisco pulled into traffic. I swallowed another surge of panic and cleared my throat. Employing my most casual Portuguese, I said: “So, gentlemen, which soccer team do you root for?” In unison, all three cops turned to me.
“Huh, you speak our language,” Francisco said, apparently flattered. “Well, we are big fans of our local club,” he went on, naming a team that wasn’t familiar to me. “It is our club, the best in Bahia. Have you heard of it?”
“Of course,” I lied.
Growing animated, the cops reeled off the names of their favorite Brazilian soccer players, recording artists, and movie stars. When I mentioned that I lived in Los Angeles, they looked at me with eyes popping. For the balance of the trip, I told them all they wanted to know about famous Hollywood actors, from Harrison Ford to Jodie Foster. I told true stories and enormous fabrications, and my newfound friends nodded and laughed, peppering me with questions.
“Here you are, safe and sound in Ondina,” Francisco said, stopping in front of my hotel and returning my passport. He had become almost chummy now, as had the dour Mario and the pale Swede. All three got out of the cruiser, shook my hand, and gave me hearty slaps on the back, leaving me with wishes for a pleasant visit in Salvador.
My legs nearly buckled as I walked away. Shouting after me, Francisco said with a note of gravity in his voice: "When in Brazil, better be careful about who you ride with. You never can tell what might happen."
The next morning, I awoke tired and out of sorts after reliving the previous evening in a series of unsettling dreams. Reaching for the phone, I dialed the switchboard. Flávio had never called to confirm my safe return to the hotel, and I thought he might have left me a message. He had not.
I wasn’t hungry but went downstairs to the breakfast buffet for coffee and fruit. Back in my room, I tried the switchboard again. Flávio hadn’t phoned, so I dialed his number at home and left a message. “Are you all right, Flávio?” I said into his answering machine. “We had planned sightseeing for today. With no word from you, I’m concerned.” I waited for a half hour and prepared to go out. Though still in a daze, I would have to pull myself together and tour Salvador alone.
My excursions on Friday and Saturday took me through the beach neighborhoods, the business district, and the Upper City. Watchful for the cops who’d kidnapped us, I returned to the Pelourinho, exploring its streets and plazas, visiting its churches and museums. The old quarter was redolent of Salvador’s rich African heritage—the bright clothing and traditional artifacts in the shops and vendor stalls. Sometimes, a spontaneous pre-Carnival parade would materialize from a side street, spreading the rhythms of Bahia’s samba and axé genres.
Even with such moments of bliss to savor, I couldn’t quite get my bearings or regain the calmness I’d felt after arriving on Thursday. Salvador had seemed new then, but now it reminded me of other coastal Brazilian cities I’d known—the same palm-lined avenues, the same mix of period and modernist buildings, the same chaotic traffic and car exhaust in the humid air. Some things, however, were different about urban Brazil since the downfall of the junta. The army patrol jeeps mounted with machine guns—ever-present during the reign of the generals—had vanished from the avenues, replaced by squad cars and the occasional beat cop with a holstered pistol. The Orwellian billboards touting the “Revolucão” had also vanished, along with the rest of the regime’s ubiquitous propaganda.
There never was a revolution, just a coup—a military takeover supported by Brazilian plutocrats and the American government, much to my endless shame and dismay. Under the generals, poverty and privilege had existed side by side, a situation that scarcely improved after the dawn of democracy. Destitute men, women, and children still languished on street corners and in doorways while the wealthy rode in black sedans with tinted windows.
Everywhere, the air seemed thick with a hangover from two decades of repression. The streets were bustling, but in most parts of the city, the atmosphere was one of tension instead of joy. Only during those brief bursts of Carnival celebration in the Pelourinho did I feel the unbridled spirit of Brazil. And in the cafés and eateries, where I retreated from the January heat, I overheard conversations about the most neutral topics—the latest soccer match, restaurant, or dance club. Evidently, Flávio wasn’t the only Brazilian who continued to feel frightened and mistrustful of the country’s recent liberation.
And so I spent Friday and Saturday in Salvador: lingering at the edge of the tourist crowds, browsing in stores yet buying nothing, and attending to every police car that passed.
Flávio didn’t call until Sunday, my last day in Bahia. He invited me to join him for drinks in the Pelourinho but never acknowledged his absence during the prior two days. I understood that he might have needed a break after Thursday night (I’d needed one, as well), although his silence on the topic seemed a troubling portent. Would he also avoid an honest discussion of how we felt about our encounter with the police?
For my part, I wanted to listen to him and share my feelings, but they were a jumble as I made my way to the Pelourinho on that balmy afternoon. I arrived early at the café Flávio had suggested, found a table, and sat for a while to collect myself. What was I feeling? Disappointment about the ruin of our romantic evening? Resentment for having to play the rescuer again, only to be abandoned in a squad car with our persecutors? Shock to have been a target of abuse for the second time in Brazil? I felt all those emotions, but how much should I share with Flávio? And what might he say to me? What might he need? No doubt, my compassion for the helplessness and dread he must have felt in the corrupt hands of the officers responsible for ensuring his—and my—safety.
I’d chosen a table by a window open to the bay. A moist breeze wafted in, scented with jacarandas. I requested a beer. In the background, a bossa nova played smooth as silk, and the water beyond shimmered with the last dapples of sunshine. Under the sway of this soothing ambiance—this ideal version of Brazil—I began to lose my sense of purpose for talking things through with Flávio. My mind drifted. I waited, nursing my beer. Five, ten, fifteen minutes.
Then, he rushed in, panting. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead and dampened his shirt. “Sorry, traffic was too congested, and I am stressed, overheated.”
“So it appears,” I replied as he collapsed into the chair across from me, motioning to the waiter for a beer.
“Well—.” Flávio exhaled. “Have you been enjoying Salvador?” It was as if the misadventure of Thursday night had never occurred, and I didn’t answer. “Well? Have you seen a lot of our lovely city?”
Flinching, I considered a dry retort but restrained the urge. “Yes, I’ve seen a lot of the city.”
Our waiter served the beer. Flávio blew off a feather of foam from his glass and took a drink. “Que ótimo. I am glad that you have enjoyed Salvador. It is a shame I am so busy these days.”
“Yes, a shame. You know, I leave tomorrow.”
“I know. And I wanted to have more time with you. But here we are, certo?”
“Here we are.” I sipped my beer.
Flávio shifted in his chair. There was a silence. Then he said, “I was wondering—how did it go with the cops on the ride to Ondina?”
A burst of heat filled my chest to hear him pose such a casual question, and after vanishing for several days. “Okay, I guess. It went okay. I wasn’t sure whether they would shake me down for extra money. Instead, we talked about soccer and movie stars until they dropped me off at the hotel. In one piece.”
“Muito bom, so things worked out for the best.”
“For the best?” I felt rankled but not surprised by Flávio’s attempt to paper things over. “We escaped a disaster, but aside from that, nothing worked out for the best. The incident with the cops was distressing. It brought up bad memories of the dictatorship.”
He hunched his shoulders. “These incidents are normal in Brazil.”
“Yes, nobody trusts the police. They are the same as before.”
“How can anyone accept official corruption as normal?” I shot back, slapping my hand down on the table. “Corruption should never be normal.” My temples throbbed. I heard the indignation in my raised voice.
“Oh, Ryan—“ Flávio lowered his beer glass, and his eyes became large and startled as if seeing someone he didn’t recognize.
My outburst also took me by surprise. Then, I realized that its actual target might not have been Flávio. The police shakedown had torn off a scab from an old injury, but how old? Fifteen years—thirty? No one was there to protect me on Thursday, as in the past, but Flávio could not have been aware of the context. “I want you to understand why I’ve been so upset,” I said, and the throbbing in my temples subsided. “Mainly, it’s because I had to take charge.”
Flávio shook his head. “You never know when the cops will stop you, even for no reason. If they do, it is better to say nothing and comply.” His voice wavered. “I was afraid. I did my best.”
“Maybe so, but you left it all to me. Afterward, you just left.”
“You talk as if it was my fault.” He stared at me for a few seconds, then added: “I love my country, but there is nothing we can do about the police, about many things, even now when Brazil is supposedly free of the generals. They are still with us.” He sat back, his jaw clenched—an expression not of defiance but grief and wounded pride. When I saw this, I let out a breath and edged my hand closer to his on the table, but he pulled his hand away.
“Flávio, I’m sorry if I’ve been harsh. It wasn’t your fault. You must have felt terrorized by those cops. I was scared, too. I went through it before in Rio. I never told you.”
“No, you never did.”
“I kept the feelings inside, thought I was over them, but I didn’t give up on Brazil. I had dreams about Brazil, about—”
My unfinished confession hung in the air.
“About—?” he cut in. “I get having dreams about Brazil. You have not been here in years. But about me? We were never destined to be together, Ryan. Not in California, not in Bahia. You did not want me in Los Angeles, remember? So why would you want me in Salvador?”
“But I did want you in Los Angeles—until I started to worry about the uncertainties. After you left, and the dictatorship fell, I hoped for changes. Coming to Salvador, I hoped for changes. In Brazil, in you, in me.”
“This belief in change, it is so American, so quaint. Brazilians know that things change little by little, if at all.”
I rotated my glass, watching the bubbles rise from the beer and evaporate. “Regardless of the differences between our countries, this is our issue, not as Brazilians or Americans, but as friends.”
Flávio glanced around the bar, toward the door, and as I awaited a response that didn’t come, I grasped something for the first time: the two of us had never really known each other, not in the States, not till now, in Salvador. Amid the haze of Southern California sunshine and budding friendship, we had avoided conversations about our lives in Brazil. The junta was still in power when Flávio and I met each other in Los Angeles, and perhaps it was too painful for him to describe the state of his country—or for me to enquire.
Much of the blame was mine. I had not asked Flávio about the hardships and privations he might have endured, this sensitive, exuberant man of modest means, coming of age in a dictatorship. He was a university student during the severest phase of the military regime, an era of mass incarcerations, widespread torture, and extrajudicial murders. What was the impact on his spirit? What scars and insecurities did he still bear? I carried scars, too, from my years in Rio and the ordeals of detention and deportation. Yet I had not disclosed any of that to Flávio.
After so long, I had returned to Brazil, asleep to the truth yet full of fantasies about a friend I thought I knew and a country I recalled from another decade. I had also returned with fantasies of invulnerability to the traumas leftover from my past. After a few days in Salvador, I was awake at last.
My friendship with Flávio, however, was far from awake. Instead, we sat in awkward silence, fidgeting and draining our glasses. He started to say something but stopped. Was there anything more to say? Possibly, although it didn’t seem the right moment. Then, a wave of regret washed over me, a wave that would ebb slowly and, in the ebbing, might also sweep the sand clean. The image settled me and left me a touch less sad.
A minute later, Flávio made his move to go. Evening approached. It was time to head home before dark. Jumping up from the table, he grazed his empty beer glass with his arm. I caught the glass, saving it from falling to the floor. His shoulders slumped briefly and straightened with a brusque shrug.
On parting, we said we would keep in touch, meet again—in America, in Brazil, wherever. Then we hugged. I held him tight, but Flávio’s hug was not the same as before. Cool, correct, and mechanical, it was an obligatory hug now. Gone was the oceanic embrace, so sweet and seductive, the one I had come to always expect from him.