Boa Noite

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Liz Bowen/The Observer

By Liz Bowen
Margaret Lamb /Writing to the right-hand Margin Prize (Creative Non Fiction) Award Runner-Up
Published: April 20, 2011

Joana was not the first drunk prostitute I met in Cacau, but she was certainly the most regal. When we were introduced, she clung lopsided onto social-worker-Leila’s soft arm, which unlike mine wasn’t clammy from the equatorial heat. She shot a wide, gap-toothed grin my way as I admired her intricately beaded wristlets, and then she pointed a bitten-off fingernail at me. “Ela não fala portugûes?” she asked Leila, tossing her off-balance but somehow stately gaze back and forth between the two of us. “Não,” Leila said.

For a minute I tried to protest that I do falo(speak) a little portugês, but my Portuguese fumbled in the presence of this woman who could have sailed two thousand ships—that is, if her isolated Brazilian town hadn’t thrown age and sickness and horny truckers her way. And besides, she thought it was way too funny that I’d come all the way out there—three plane rides and a six-hour trail of potholes—without having bothered to learn to understand her. Fortunately for me, she had the heart (or blood alcohol level) to think it was funny instead of what it actually was: ignorant, arrogant, and just so American.

Leila and I had come to this restaurante(hest-ow-rahn-chee) to set up for a party. I had come to Cacau with a volunteer group from my college to build a house for a prostitute, and we decided to have a party so the Americans who didn’t falam portugûeswould get to mingle uncomfortably with the sex workers whose community we were living in. Although there was constantly an array of blackened beef crackling on a row of indoor grills, I’d never seen anyone eat anything there. Positioned directly across the highway from the only truck stop for miles and miles, it mainly functioned as the perfect place for the girls to sit on the cemented patio, drink a beer or seven, and wait for customers to come slithering across the street like leaked oil. There was really only one available profession in Cacau, so both the restauranteand the town surrounding it housed only women and their children; men filtered through as fast as they could empty their wallets. And though there was a small kitchen in the back that presumably cooked things sometimes, we’d be bringing our own popcorn and pineapple cake that night. The air there always tasted slightly burnt, so we figured the food did, too.

As we started to decorate, the collective of bare-midriffed women expanded outside—partly waiting for work, partly amusing themselves with the sight of two obvious outsiders attempting to beautify this beer joint. Like a shoebox laid on its side, the restaurantehad no windows, only an open storefront that Leila and I struggled to adorn with sloppy clusters of balloons and boot laces. We attached the grape-bunch shapes to loops of string and slung them around rusty hooks and cobwebbed metal gratings. The girls outside laughed as we tried to clean the grime off our hands with condensation from our drinking glasses.

After our thorough floor sweeping, which still left an indelible layer of red street dust on the tiling, Joana and her friend Euryzete decided it was time to lend us a hand. We only really had one thing left to do: fold hundreds of ripped-out magazine pages into triangles and hang them on endless strings of twine, then zigzag our “flag” banners over the interior of the room. Easy enough—if you’re sober and you can tell when a string can’t fit any more flags. So that became my job, holding one end of the string and monitoring its progress as Leila folded triangles and the Cacau girls tumbled over each other, running to retrieve and place as many flags as they could without destroying them. “Mais um?” (“One more?”) they’d plead, shaking triangulated liquor ads and glue at me as I took up the ends of the completed string to hang it. Though there was always another bare string ready for decoration, they grabbed at each full one like babies to earrings, snapping curses at each other for the chance to hang the last flag on the line.

Inglês? Ela fala Inglês!?” Joana wouldn’t once get over my linguistic insufficiency for the two hours that we worked together, but that didn’t prevent her from telling me over and over how much my eyes looked like her mother’s. And then she’d try to hang a flag where there wasn’t space for one, and I’d tell her to wait for the next string, and she would.

Soon enough Rogerio, a local from the next town over, showed up with his pick-up truck full of crayon-yellow plastic chairs. We arranged them carefully in a wide circle in the middle of the shoebox room, augmenting the restaurante’ssupply of wobbly wooden seats. At that point in the particularly sweltering afternoon, the sun had begun to slant through the open storefront onto our backs, and for the first time since I’d arrived in Brazil two weeks before, I noticed I wasn’t sweating.

Although our party planning resources were modest at best, the place did look a little livelier now that it boasted some colors other than burnt orange and dingy white. We set up a small radio to hide the ambient sounds of truck horns and distant shouting, and soon the room began to pulsate with the infectious zabumba beats of forrò(fo-ho)—a dance popular in northeastern Brazil, the rebellious teenage child of salsa. The undeniable smell of popcorn finally began to overtake the lingering essence of spilled beer. When my American teammates started filtering in alongside the women of Cacau and their many children, I watched the locals smile up at our balloons and banners—details my college teammates didn’t seem to notice. I wondered if I would have seen the difference if I hadn’t worked so hard to reduce the grime that had been there before we started—it wasn’t any New York party scene, but I thought we’d done an okay job sprucing up the place. Part out of exhaustion and part out of spite, I settled down in a dimly lit corner, by myself with a few of Euryzete’s tiny sons.

The best thing about the children in Cacau is that, like Joana, they don’t resent a language barrier. If you’re holding a balloon, which I was, and you throw it at them, which I did, they’ll engage in a game of “keep it up” with you, infinitely until the balloon pops or you run out of time together. Our balloon didn’t pop, despite the fact that the boys were an inch away from inflicting head injuries on each other just to be the first to hit it into the air. To tone down the competitiveness and risk of liability, I untied two extra balloons from one of my grape bunches of balloon art. Soon, the boys were banging their heads against the painted concrete walls again, trying to hit all three floating colors before their brothers could.

I thought I was about to have a damaged little boy on my hands when the youngest, Felipe, flipped backward over himself trying to catch the swiftly deflating red balloon. By some miracle, he fell directly into a three-foot-tall pyramid of watermelons, which therestaurante’snon-present owners must have trusted no one would steal from their unguarded spot on the side of the room. Felipe, his brothers and I erupted into giggles while the others played alingual icebreaker games in the plastic chair circle. I’m sure there were plenty of shouts and laughs and botched Portuguese conversations coming from the center of the room, but I didn’t notice. I was standing in front of a collapsing pile of watermelons, balloons and laughing children—nothing else could ever matter. The American in me told me to scoop up the kids and try to reassemble the fruit as quickly as possible, to avoid getting in trouble. Fortunately, I had become pretty good at getting the American in me to shut up. I sat on the dusty tile, surrounded by heavy green orbs and big-eyed babes, for the duration of the party.

At some point, I happened to glance over at the front of the restaurante, where earlier so many women had gathered to wait for faceless men. By then, we’d convinced everyone to come inside for our free food and games and funny accents—but I noticed we’d lost a guest. In the lingering night heat that rose from the dirt to the trucks’ headlights, I saw a few flashes of color as a hand waved about, distinctively royal. A dark woman in a yellow tube top perched herself on the lap of a stoic man, her body swaying over his with each weak breath of sticky wind. Joana, like I, had ditched the party. With a sudden pang of self-consciousness, I wondered if she would have thought that was funny.