Love Story–Silver Winner: One Little Kiss

By Nicole Zimmerman

“Um beijinho,” Gean coaxed, his lips just brushing my ear as he whispered it. “One little kiss.”

It wasn’t romance that I was seeking when I came to Brazil. But it sought me. Romance swept me into its arms on the dance floor of a forro festival. It raised its eyebrows and murmured “gostoza” (delicious) under its breath as I passed by. Romance sang its sultry melodies along miles of crystalline coastline. And now, a slow, sensuous kiss caressed one cheek, then the other.

Watching me, Gean swam closer and held me in a tight embrace. Surrounded by the shallow waters of a pristine stream where we had stopped to bathe I gazed back at him, uncertain whether I should show pleasure or protest. When my eager mouth accepted another, deeper kiss, my mind objected in alarm.

“We’ve only just met!” I warned with a mixture of delight and apprehension. Confused by a hunger I hesitated to reveal too quickly, I pushed him away and dived back under the cool waters to clear my head.

Just that morning I had happened upon Gean’s village in northeastern Brazil. I was staying nearby in Imbassai, located one hour from the urban streets of Salvador da Bahia where I had studied Portuguese and lived with a local family. A small town consisting mainly of empty pousadas, or guest houses, Imbassai occupied one knot in a string of traditional fishing villages that ran the length of the “litoral norte”, or north coast, of Bahia. The towns were bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the coastal highway that connected them. In this northern oasis I’d been stargazing from my porch while the wind shook the coconut palms, swathed in moonlight, above the hammock that held my dreams. For days I’d felt lulled by charms unrivaled in the northern hemisphere. I was born of American parents in Sao Paulo, where I’d spent my first few years, but I wasn’t immune to Brazil’s romantic affect on the psyche. Reconstructed memories and idealized images from old photos and my parents’ stories revealed a chubby baby savoring ripe papaya in Sao Paulo, golden angels flying across stained glass windows in Brasilia, dark hands launching candle lantern boats into the festive waters of Rio. The longing for my mother country was a constant pulse beating under the surface of my skin. It wasn’t long before I, too, became possessed by its alluring ways.

That morning, walking down to the beach, I’d slowly meandered three miles on foot while soaking up the warm winter sun. The only visible inhabitants along this deserted stretch of coastline were a pod of sea turtles and a retired old fisherman mending the cloth sail of his traditional wood raft by hand. By late afternoon I had followed a few beach vendors returning home to Santo Antonio to hang up their wares.

People gathered on windowsills and porches of painted brick houses built upon sand. Men played dominoes and boys kicked around a soccer ball in their bare feet. Dark grandmothers stood in doorways, braiding the brown curls of girls holding barbie dolls. When I asked for directions to the bus stop on the road, Gean followed me past the last pastel house to the powdered dunes of his backyard.

“Do you like to swim?” he’d asked. “I know a secret place, just over there.”

Gean nodded toward the palm-fringed sand dunes beyond, part of a nature preserve that extended for miles. His full lips curled into a friendly smile.

I hesitated, knowing that the sun would soon set. But I was intrigued by the invitation as much as by the man who offered it. Laughing, I finally agreed: “Uma aventura nova !” A new adventure.

I followed the young stranger over steep hills of sand, soft and fine as freshly fallen snow. The blaring white sparkled in stark contrast to his rich cocoa complexion. Well-defined legs, sculpted from years surfing and hiking, extended from his board shorts to his flip-flops. A necklace of dark seeds decorated his bare torso. All smooth skin and slender hips.

Gean led me to the “aguas doces” — the sweet waters of a narrow, hidden portion of the Sauipe River known only to the locals. Nestled in green foliage like a sparkling dark jewel in a treasure chest, the water enticed me into its embrace and moved like silk against my skin, as did he.

Accustomed to traveling alone as a single woman, both the risks and benefits of road romance were not unknown to me. In fact, I had recently reveled in it during a week in the interior and wasn’t at all sure I was ready for round two. Unlike my previous encounter, nobody I knew here realized I was with Gean or could account for his character. I questioned whether it was safe to succumb to this stranger in a desolate corner of a foreign land. But I’d grown weary of my days alone, listening to the chatter of monkeys or witnessing the occasional couple walking hand in hand.

One little kiss is all it took. The following afternoon by the river, a dense thicket of tangled trees would shield our naked bodies wrapped together on a blanket in the sand. Gean would suggest that we go away for a few days together. This time his pursuit would be met without resistance.

The muddy yellow streets of the neighboring town were still sticky from the recent downpour. Unfinished homes exposed brick and rebar, seemingly abandoned until a crying baby or blaring radio broke the illusion. Women hanging laundry on the line, about to get a second rinse from the sky, smiled and said Bom Dia as we passed.

Gean and I came upon a large concrete block and peered through the glass door to the lobby. Two ceramic saints, candles permanently lit at their base, stared back. The Dona opened the door and silently led us to the second story of vacant rooms off an open-air corridor. Fumbling with a ring of ancient keys that stuck in the lock she supplicated to the heavens, “Meu Deus!”

Aside from one bulb with its exposed wire dangling from the ceiling, the only other light was the grey pallor emitted from a tiny shuttered window offering a glimpse of the stormy sea. The Dona gestured at the lumpy double bed shoved between narrow walls, agreed on a price and returned to her room filled with a dozen glowing saints awaiting her prayers.

It wasn’t far into our weekend getaway that our plans went awry. Gean’s boss called him back to work at the hotel multiplex where he held a job as an events manager for corporations using the facility. Covering 500 acres of beachfront property adjacent to his village, the site consisted of five high-end resort hotels and an artificial “village” mimicking the local pousadas. For vacationers and businessmen who could afford the luxury, there was shopping and entertainment, a golf course and equestrian trails. Wealthy Brazilians filled the swimming pools and drank expensive cocktails. Loudspeakers cranked out samba songs and beach vendors sold sunglasses and sarongs.

Santo Antonio still housed 160 members of Gean’s extended family but it was the rare tourist who left the haven of the hotel complex next door to sample his mother’s traditional Bahian moqueca — a seafood stew laced with coconut milk and dende palm oil extracted from the nuts of trees brought from Africa when thousands of slaves were brought to labor in the sugar cane fields of the region. Rather than eke out a living as a traditional fisherman or craftsman, Gean worked for the tourist industry that now occupied his family’s ancestral land. His family had owned thousands of acres of sandy wilderness for over a century, he explained, until his grandmother sold much of it to developers. It was a decision her descendants would come to regret.

Gean road the bus between his work and our accommodation during a weekend of torrential rains. His sporadic visits, and my anticipation of them, was all that interrupted my solitary confinement even books couldn’t assuage. Patiently I waited for him on the dirty, torn sofa of the lobby, watching the wind blow waterfalls under the front doors and flood the floor. Water stains spread across the ceiling, which dripped into puddles and broke off in plaster pieces.

But safe in our room I languished in my lover’s arms while he murmured in a language still foreign to my ear. “Bonitinha,” he would hold me whispering, “I thought about you all night”. He used words for me ending in “inha” (meaning “little”) for emphasis, for affection, while he looked me over adoringly. Translated into English his words were trite, almost laughable; I could never take them seriously. But in Portuguese they seduced me like passionate poems.

Each time Gean returned to me was a welcome respite from my captivity. Once he brought a berimbau he’d carved from local wood and gourd. He sang and taught me to play the single string instrument used in capoeira – the stylized, acrobatic martial art form originated from slaves. Keeping rhythm I shook the small caixixi – a fiber rattle he’d woven in the style of the artisans of his village and filled with the bright red seeds of local trees.

One last evening, huddling in a restaurant’s outdoor gazebo with its dripping thatched roof, we laughed over our misfortune as the owner repeatedly mopped up the wet tabletop. It was then that Gean told me how I had already marked his life.

“Amor, I’m serious about you,” Gean declared fervently while gazing into my eyes. He begged me to return and stay with him. “Please come live with me in nossa casa,” he implored as he pulled me onto his lap. “Meu coracao, I want you for always,” he continued. “I feel like I’ve known you all my life. Toda a minha vida.”

Gean and I had only been together for a few days. I tried to explain to him that our time together, though adored, had been temporary. That I was just passing through his life and led a very different one in the U.S. That I didn’t know when I might return to Brazil. When he didn’t answer I added, “I’m used to traveling alone, meeting wonderful people and then saying good-bye.”

Gean looked stricken and pulled away from me. How could he be so idealistic, so naive, I wondered? Did he not comprehend the challenges of loving someone of another world, someone who speaks like a child in his mother tongue? Could he truly be this smitten or was it just the Brazilian romantic taking hold?

I did not wish to be beholden to him. Nor did I want to dash his hopes. “We don’t know what the future holds,” I compromised.

Gean insisted that we keep in touch. “Then, if you don’t want to continue, I’m sure someday I will find someone else,” he added sadly.

But when morning came with its sunlight and hope, we raced to the beach like zealous children. The whitecaps of the waves, illuminated by a watercolor sky, crashed around our frolicking. Returning to the room to shower and pack our bags, I confided, “I don’t know where I’ll head next… I don’t want to leave you now.” After much discussion, Gean and I agreed that I would continue up the coast until he had five days off work soon and could join me. I was relieved to know we would resume our romance before our final good-byes.

Waiting at the bus stop, soon to go our separate ways, we watched the sky fill with dark clouds. I felt anxious and confused. Before departing, I had counted out my money for the third time, deliberately separating each of the crisp hundred dollar bills I’d withdrawn the night before and promptly hidden. To circumvent the sparse atm machines and exorbitant bank fees, I was used to hoarding large sums at once. This withdrawal was meant to last the duration of my stay in Brazil. Hoping I’d made a mistake in my accounting, I’d finally let the realization sink in.

“I have money missing!” I’d lamented, my jaw opening wide in dismay.

Gean tried to examine the evidence, but I quickly shooed him away. I felt embarrassed to show him how much cash I was carrying with me. Sure, I’d paid for everything. The American dollar was twice as strong as the Brazilian real, I reasoned, though I was surprised the first night I’d given Gean money to buy condoms and he’d kept the change to buy candy for himself.

“Are you sure? Did you look through everything? Maybe you left the money somewhere else,” Gean suggested.

“No. I took all the money from my pocket and put it directly into my suitcase last night.”

“I remember,” he affirmed. “Well, maybe you didn’t take out the amount you thought.”

Had I withdrawn $100 less than I recalled? I wondered, second-guessing myself. I was in the habit of maintaining meticulous financial records, but I couldn’t find my receipt.

“Sometimes the banks here rob people!” Gean had informed me. But that seemed the most unlikely scenario of all. The worries I’d held at bay for days began to resurface. The Brazilian airline I had tickets for was going bankrupt and travelers were stranded daily by cancelled flights. Trying to reach airline or bank offices proved impossible. Furthermore, my body was battling a yeast infection as well as a mosquito-bitten eyelid suddenly swelling to freakish proportions. Making plans on a whim didn’t feel so romantic anymore.

“I may have lost my flight and can’t reach anyone by phone, I don’t feel well and now my money is mysteriously missing,” I complained.

Gean tried to console me. “Amor, I know how you must feel,” he sympathized. “I get upset when I’ve lost just one real!” Minutes later he was gone, and I was left again to my wandering. In another town with another series of vacant rooms I walked in solitude for several days. Passing school kids in the plaza, but seeing no other visitors, I felt the ghost-town presence of summer’s end. Deserted barracas – bungalow bars- lined long stretches of beach. What were once filled with dance music and caipirinhas were now boarded up, their plastic chairs stacked tightly together as if braced against the wind. A rainbow stretched across the horizon, but I had no one to share it with. Loneliness and indecision were my only companions.

I began to question everything. What was I doing here, traveling through a desolate tropical winter landscape alone? I longed for the shared laughter and the hundred diminutives Gean used to express his adoration daily. I missed pouring Portuguese over my tongue. And yet… who was I, an independent woman, to pine for this young man I barely knew and depend on him for solace? Had I made a mistake not following my original plan to catamaran to off-shore islands before leaving the country? Maybe I should just give in and return to the congested streets of Salvador to attend to my health and close loose ends, I wondered. The dreadful thought that Gean might have stolen my money also lingered in the back of my mind but I couldn’t allow myself to consider it. Instead, I fretted over what to do next.

As often happens in the crossroads, fate led the way. The bus heading further north never came, and the one heading south to the city stopped for a lunch break back in Imbassai. I immediately headed to the only working phone in a familiar cluster of blue booths in the village center.

“Querida,” Gean’s voice lulled, “I was afraid you wouldn’t call. You don’t know how happy you’ve made me!”

When Gean walked up the stairs to my pousada’s patio of hammocks I lay waiting, still anticipating, still uncertain. For a moment he just stood staring at me, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Que linda, que bonitinha,” he said, looking me over in his eager, familiar way. Gean held my head to him in a long, tender embrace.

“Quero voce,” he murmured, his hand to his heart.

“I want you too,” I answered. All my doubt receded, replaced by the enduring comfort of his affection. I was his apple, his pretty one, his little sweet.

Where the river meets the sea in Imbassai, Gean knew everyone. “That guy’s my cousin,” he’d refer to the man who had ferried me across the river my first day.

“E ai Broder?” young men would call to Gean, acknowledging me with a casual nod.

“How’s it going man?”

They bumped their fists together like pals with superpowers, speaking in slang. Always the same one-word answers, accompanied by a thumbs-up sign: “Legal. Beleza. Joia.” Legal, beauty, jewel – all meaning the same thing – Cool. Everything’s cool.

For me it was a perfect dream. By day we drank from coconuts and sampled skewered shrimp. By night we dined by lantern light. It seemed we had the whole ocean to ourselves, and I wallowed in the sun instead of self-pity. Each day we strolled the shores and shared our life stories in Portuguese. We lay kissing on river rocks and took self-portraits on his cell phone. I wore my new Brazilian bikini, and though my bottom burst out like a ripe pink peach on each side of the median strip just wider than a thong, I was reflected beautifully in Gean’s eyes like the prized queen I’d become. But like all dreams, this one too had to end.

We awoke early to the silhouettes of fishermen casting their nets at low tide. On our way to the beach Gean begged me never to forget him.

“My heart has opened to you,” he cried, “and it is breaking.” Tears were streaming down his face, melting me with their sincerity.

“I feel so sensitive, so sentimental,” he admitted. “Com saudade”, he repeated, communicating the words of missing, of longing, expressed best by the Brazilian soul.

For the last time together we rode the sea’s undulating waves. “Ah, the sea is so powerful, so cleansing. Como um baptismo,” he said. Like a baptism. We promised to keep in touch, made vows to remember. Finally I watched him walk away, his flip-flops treading back across the sand forever.

For a while after Gean left I just faced the sea and cried. Bittersweet tears. It wasn’t only that I felt sad from what I’d just lost. (Who would bless me by the minute with a million endearing names?) I was also overwhelmed with joy for all that I’d found, as if what I’d hungered for my whole life had been satiated. Still, it wasn’t really the man I had fallen in love with. It was all that he, and my time in Brazil, had led me to: my nascimento – my birthplace, my origin, my heart.

Back in the pousada, I went through the familiar ritual of packing my things and counting my cash. It was then that I noticed that some bills, along with my traveler’s check, were gone. Suddenly, earlier suspicions lingered like a bad aftertaste in my mouth. Questions I hadn’t allowed to fully surface the week before flooded my mind. Without a doubt, I had been robbed.

As I stepped into the taxi van Gean had reserved for me, the driver handed me a small, folded piece of paper. It was a note, written in Portuguese. “I want you for always… You are the woman of my life, the special one I have dreamed of…. The love that I feel for you is like the waves in the sea, the waves that crash…” on and on. A love letter, or possibly a song. It ended with two final words: Um beijo. A kiss.

When I look back on my up and down days in Brazil, one word comes to mind: “Valeu.” Worth. Value. Thanks. The expression is short for “Valeu a pena”, meaning “It was worth it” — worth the pain. Now I try to embrace this typically Brazilian sentiment that no matter what distress life offers, there is joy and gratitude to be found in celebrating, in dancing, in loving. It wasn’t romance that I was seeking when I came to Brazil. But it was through the seductive kiss of one stranger that Brazil left its indelible mark upon me.

Valeu, I’ve decided. It was worth it.

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