It was after midnight when he slouched into the hotel on CopacabanaBeach. The long day of meetings in São Paulo had labored on through dinner. He’d vowed to take the half-hour flight to Rio afterwards, whatever the time, just to escape the deadly corporate strategy sessions on how to build new markets for disposable diapers. Yes. Disposable diapers. He would be among the pioneers, he had been assured. South America was virgin territory for them, so the research department claimed. Mothers there hardly knew what disposable diapers were. And once they found out, the VP of marketing had crowed, there’d be fortunes to be made. Especially in Brazil. The biggest market. But top management said they had to move fast. Competition would be ferocious. He carried a recent Wall Street Journal article making the case, distributed at the breakfast meeting: “South America’s Emerging Markets Poised for Battle Over Diapers.”
But he didn’t care. Not anymore. Professional ambition, and the zeal for marketing products like disposable diapers, had leaked out of him–he cringed at the image. Even with a fortune to be made. Even if Cuddlies, Snugglies, Cozies, by whatever name–“Ickies,” he called them–were the key to South America’s economic future, the engine of development, the makings of utopia, a panacea for freedom and the good life, and all the rest of the humbug that the company philosophers high-mindedly puffed. He shuddered to think of the nonsense he’d heard colleagues say: “When Cuddlies are in every house and shack and shanty in Brazil you’ll see a new country. A nation of energetic, productive people who feel more alive from day one of their lives! And they’ll never go back. We’ll have customers forever. We can diversify with a whole line of products. Cuddlies for infants in various weights and absorbancies. Then Cuddly underwear. Cuddly pacifiers. Cuddly pajamas. Maybe a movie tie-in. Remember Pocohontas underpants? Why not Cuddlies in Disney movies? Why not….?”
He decided a day in Rio de Janeiro would take him away from all that. Maybe give him a new start. Before going home to the empty apartment in Manhattan where Sylvia used to be waiting. Until six months ago when she announced she was leaving him for her workout trainer at the gym who could do wonderful, profoundly moving things for her. What could those things be, he wondered? He guessed he would never know. She was gone. And he would go home to diaper theory.
So Rio would be an escape. It wasn’t like him to do that. But he did it anyway. And he felt good about it.
Once in the hotel room, he emptied his pockets on a table, threw off his suit jacket and stepped out onto the terrace. Seeing the arc of CopacabanaBeach seven stories below lit by the street lamps of Avenida Atlantica swooping in a great crescent from his hotel at one end around to the other where Sugar Loaf mountain rose boldly under lights, he mentally patted himself on the back for coming. He absorbed the exhilarating sight his own self-satisfaction for a few minutes, then splashed water on his face, changed into casual clothes, locked his valuables in the closet safe to protect them from the urchins he had been warned descend from shanties in the hills to pilfer from tourists, and headed down for a drink at a sidewalk café along the broad sea-side avenue.
The Avenida Atlantica was alive in the warm December air with visitors sampling the scene and locals, cariocas, whose night had hardly begun, eating and drinking and merry-making. He took an empty table in a nearby café spread along a stretch of the avenue. Bent on plumbing the adventure, he ordered a caipirinha, which the waiter, with arching eyebrows and flailing arms, described as a Brazilian concoction of sugar cane liquor called cachaçha, sugar, and lime juice that lifts the spirits like Carneval. That sounded just right. When it came, he sipped it timorously, then thirstily. Limeade, he said to himself, and quickly ordered another, settling in to watch the parade of ambling passers-by. Then she sat down.
“’Allo,” a husky female voice said. Startled, he jerked his head around. There across the table a woman smiled at him. It was an easy smile, and it revealed a broken tooth she made no attempt to hide. Quite pretty, though, he thought. Large eyes. Strong features. Long dark hair. Rather young, but he could not tell for sure. The light was dim, and he suspected she wore a lot of make-up. Then studying her face a little he detected enough lines around her mouth to show that youth had passed a while ago.
“Hello,” he replied, uncertain if he should speak or ignore her. Who was she? A tourist? Not likely. A friendly carioca? Possibly a prostitute? Probably. He’d been warned about them, too. They’re legal in Rio, he remembered some guidebook had said, but that doesn’t make ‘em honest. He wasn’t searching for that kind of escape anyway. Too dangerous.
“I am Ciéla,” she said warmly.
“Nice name,” he answered without thinking, hearing the melodic syllables, See-ayy-la.
“I like. From my madre. She Spanish. She love to look at the sky. Sun. Stars. The heaven. So she call me Ciéla. For the sky. The heaven.” She gestured heavenward and widened her smile.
Kind of sweet, he said to himself.
“You American?” she asked.
“First time in Rio?”
“Yes. I just got here.”
“I guess so. It’s pretty.”
“Ees beee-yooo-teee-foool. Sometime rain. But every time beee-yooo-teee-foool. I luvv.” She flashed her broken-tooth smile again.
He returned a quick grin, and shifted his eyes to the street.
Her voice came back. “You beezness een Rio?”
He paused. “Not really,” he said distractedly.
“How long you stay?”
“I leave tomorrow.”
Then for reasons he could not have explained, a perverse curiosity came over him. And he asked nervously, “You, uh, work here?”
“Yayss,” she answered pleasantly. At “Hotel.”
Casually, she motioned up and down the avenue. “All.”
He gazed at her. No pretense. She was a prostitute. That was what she had meant wasn’t it? But she was softer than he had imagined someone like her would be here. Yes, even sweet. His curiosity grew. Feigning nonchalance, he asked, “Do you like it? Your work?” Stupid question! he scolded himself silently.
“Yays. I like,” she said without hesitation.
No stopping now. “Why?” he blurted out.
“Ohhh, I like because ayvree day somtheen new. Deefrent. Adventur!” She said it with a laugh.
He didn’t know whether to believe her or not. New? Adventure? Nonsense! She can’t really think that. The happy, good-natured hooker? A cliché. An act. Phony.
Then she leaned toward him and spoke in a solemn tone. “My seester, Maria, she marry. No good for her. Alwayz unhappy. My life better.”
“But,” he said impulsively, “aren’t some of the men you meet,…aren’t they, well, bad to you?”
“No. No,” came the swift reply. “O, maybee one time or two. Not like Maria. Husband heet her many time. I go only with men I like. And they like me. I make them happy. Every time. Every day!” She grinned broadly, and sat back, running a hand through her long black hair. The glare of a street light fell over her face, revealing more age than he had seen at first. He couldn’t stop focussing on that broken tooth. She lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the faintly stirring night air. Then she leaned across the table again and whispered heartily, “and I luvvv sexx.” Her natural laugh burst out once more. She tossed her head back. Then she puckered her lips tightly around the cigarette.
Speechless, he gulped down the rest of his second ciapirinha and waved to the waiter for another. He wanted to leave, but he couldn’t. So what if she was just playing a role to lure a customer? She was good. Good at seeming both innocent and adventurous? Her word! And likeable at that.
He blinked when he heard her say, “Your beezness, you like?”
He didn’t answer. Why talk about that. He mumbled, “Oh, I don’t know.”
“Your beezness make peepul happy?”
He squinted at her. He’d never thought of it that way. There was the marketing hype, of course, all that stuff about changing peoples lives with disposable diapers. “Sure,” he sighed , “that’s what we say.”
“What you do, your beezness?”
He squirmed in his chair. No way was he going into that. He got his drink and downed a long swallow. “Uh, children,” he said groping. ‘I, uh, work with children. Clothes to, uh, keep them dry and, uh, warm.” Clever, he thought, a marketer’s ingenuity. He held the glass to his mouth to conceal his silly satisfaction.
“Ahh.. Goood. Makes them happy. I have son,” she said proudly “Seex year old. Hee ees beee-yooo-teee-foool.” Reaching into her purse, she withdrew a photograph and held it out to him. “Carlos,” she beamed. Taking it carefully, he examined the picture. The boy stood on a beach in orange swimming trunks holding a volley ball against his hip. She was right. He was beautiful. Lean and slender. Olive skin, dark curly hair, big round melting eyes, and a wide bright smile.
“Yes, he is very handsome,” he said returning the photograph.
“He verryy happy. And verrryyy smart.” She tapped her temple. “He go to school every morning. Father ees American,” she added emphatically to make a point.
Taking the bait, he asked, “The father…is a…?”
“Yays. From Boston.”
“Does he know…?”
“Yays. He know. He come. But not now. Not any more.” She turned away, and he saw a hint of sadness flicker over her face in the street lights. They sat without speaking, watching lovers strolling past and the palms lining Avenida Atlantica wafting quietly, and the full moon hovering over the bay beaming a rippling white line across the black water into the shore. Minutes passed. Then her husky female voice said softly.
“You go weeth me now?”
He stared at her without answering. She wore her alluring expression, mingling innocence and adventurousness with that peculiar, warm, broken-tooth smile. Almost involuntarily a voice from inside him said, “OK.”
He signaled the waiter and paid the check nervously. They got up and made their way through the tables to the sidewalk and on to his hotel. He didn’t know quite what he was doing, and hoped no one would suspect, even though he knew it didn’t matter. But when they shut the door of his room behind them, and lay on the bed, everything changed. For him.
Ciéla was loving. Uninhibited. Joyous. She bathed him in her knowing excitements. He felt a passion he had never known. And an unexpected desire. It started with delicious sensations, and deepened to where it lit a flame inside that spread heat throughout his body. And with that heat he found himself feeling a tenderness for her he had never imagined, wanting nothing so much as to give pleasure to her. He didn’t know where it came from, this desire. It was simply a desire to please, to make her happy. And he went with it, bestowing on her every affection and delight he could discover to give. Some things he didn’t know he could do. He’d never done them before. He’d never thought of doing them. “Strange,” he thought, as he caressed and gently massaged her shoulders and neck, “why should I care?” Why did he want to make her happy? Why did he feel this warm ecstasy flow through him as he attended to her every loving sensation? And why her, this whore working the hotels of Copacabana, who claimed to like the “adventure” of her prostitute’s life and to “luvvv sexx,” and who hid her sadness behind a winning smile? But he soon stopped asking, and gave himself to it. To the feeling. To the night. To Ciéla.
The first gray light of dawn was creeping into the sky when he opened his eyes and peered over the bed and out through the open balcony doors. He yawned, rubbed his face, and stretched, feeling pangs of stiffness in his muscles and joints that soon reminded him where he was. Ciéla lay next to him already awake. She rolled on her side and raised up on an elbow. “’Allo,” she said, with a smile he thought too full for the hour. He saw the broken tooth. It had become an emblem of her good nature.
“Hello, “ he whispered, and touched her cheek lightly with the tips of his fingers. For a few minutes, they voicelessly traced the features of each other’s faces, just becoming visible in the dawning light.
She broke the silence almost inaudibly. “You nice. You make me verryy happyy.”
“I’m glad. You are nice, too.”
“Your wife, veerryy lucky.”
“I don’t have a wife.”
She paused. “Then your girlfriend, veerry lucky.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
She lifted her fingers to her mouth and played with her lips as if coyly about to reveal a secret. “Then I lucky,” she whispered and smiled, bending down to kiss him lightly. He gathered her in his arms and held her close.
She breathed into his ear words he could just barely make out. “Don’t go. Pleez, don’t go.”
Taken aback, he asked, “What do you mean?”
“Don’t go home today.”
He swallowed hard. “I…I have to.”
They lay for a few moments in a quiet embrace. Then she pulled back and sat up slowly. He saw that her cheeks were moist with tears. She wiped them with the palm of her hand.
“How strange,” he said to himself again. “It is all so very strange.”
“Go tomorrow,” she sniffled.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. I have to go today.” He felt odd having this kind of a conversation with a prostitute in Rio de Janeiro. Then he added, partly to be polite, “But I’ll be back.”
“When?” she asked with a calm insistence that surprised him.
“Soon. Very soon,” he answered awkwardly, not knowing quite what to say, or feel.
Ciéla sank silently back against the pillow. Through a window daylight could be seen creeping above the horizon, whitening the wisps of clouds drifting ocross the morning sky. Then she said she had to leave to get Carlos ready for school at home where her mother watched over him at night. She pressed a kiss on his forehead, and slipped out of the bed. Soon she had washed in the bathroom, pulled on her clothes, combed her hair, dabbed on some makeup, and walked to the door. He threw on a robe, collected a wad of Reals from his wallet, and held them out to her. She paused. Shyly she let him close them into her hand.
“Pleez come back,” she said softly.
“I will. I promise. Soon. Maybe next month.” Then an idea hit him. “Give me your address and your phone number. I’ll write to you. I’ll let you know when I’m coming. I promise.” He snatched the newspaper article from the table where he had dropped it earlier, tore off a corner, and gave it to her. She found a pen in her bag and, holding the paper to the wall, scrawled on it and handed it back. He stuffed it into the pocket of his robe.
“You are very nice, Ciéla,” he said earnestly. “I like you very much. And I will come soon.”
She gave him a half smile and kissed him gently on the mouth. Then she drew back and opened the door. “Obrigada,” she whispered. ”Thank you.”
“Obrigado,” he echoed, summoning his only Portugese. “I will see you soon, Ciéla.”
She offered a half-smile again with an ambiguous nod, turned around, and vanished down the corridor. He closed the door slowly and leaned his back against it. “How very strange,” he repeated aloud, shaking his head. Then he noticed the room feeling warm and humid and wanted some fresh air. Seeing the closed curtains at the balcony shifting languorously in the sea breeze, he walked over, drew them aside and stepped out. The sun, still hidden below the horizon, was now throwing a yellow glow into the summer haze. Sugar Loaf and the islands off shore in the distance were taking form in the eastern light. The sweeping arc of Copacabana still sparkled with street lamps just before the day fell upon them, until in a stroke, they went off. He could make out a couple of runners jogging along the broad black-and-white swirling patterned sidewalk of Avenida Atlantica abutting the beach. And a group of adolescents was setting up a volley ball net on the sand to get in their play before the heat and crowds arrived.
Then he saw her. At least he thought it was her. Walking away on the swirling pattern of the beach sidewalk. The first rays of the sun peeking over the horizon shot across the water and caught her in their beam. It was Ciéla. A wave of elation rushed through him, followed by an undertow of regret. What was going on? The sunrise. The beach. The ocean. Rio. Memories of that joyful night. The sight of Ciéla. Yes! Yes! Ciéla! “The hell with it!” he muttered. “I’ll stay!”
Impulsively, he shouted, “Ciéla, wait! Ciéla!”
She walked on. His heart sank. Then he remembered. Shoving a hand into his pocked, he pulled out the crumpled piece of newspaper. Leaning forward against the balcony railing, he ironed out the wrinkles with his finger tips, and studied the writing. “Ciéla Gesualdo. 743….”
A gust of wind suddenly whipped over the balcony. And like a mischievous child, it plucked the paper from his hands, blew it up and around in looping circles and out into the soft morning air. “Damn!!” he cursed, and reached out for it, leaning farther and farther over the railing with his arm flailing and fingers grasping for the taunting scrap, which bounced tauntingly on the playful breeze beyond his straining fingers. Desperate, he lunged for the fugitive as it skipped mockingly away. For a moment he felt like he was flying toward it, riding a kindly swell of that jaunty breeze, as he fell, crying her name, Seeee-aayyyy-llll-aaaaaaaa…..
Ciéla didn’t hear. She had climbed into the bus for her early morning ride home to Carlos. Sitting at a window, she was telling herself that this nice man who had made her so happy would, after all, be just like the others. He wouldn’t come back. Not to her. He didn’t even tell her his name. The bus moved off. Ciéla looked out at the palm trees flitting past, the wide velvety beach tapering into the surf, the ceaseless waves rolling rhythmically to crash in sparkling spray on the sand, the rising sun silhouetting Sugar Loaf and the rocky islands and glistening over the water of the perfect bay, kissing Rio awake. She smiled to think this was hers. Every day. And every day, something new.