One night he told me to quit school.
“Why?” I asked, embarrassed.
He said not to tell anyone what we were doing.
“Is it a sin?” I asked again.
The path through the scrub to my house, if that hut of mud and sticks could be called a house, was dark. He told me to walk in front.
He seemed different now. Halfway along the path, he turned around and left me there.
I stopped to count the coins. I had no idea how much they were worth. Further on, I crouched through the bushes and grasped the basket of candies I had left there.
Such a pity. I hadn’t sold any.
Such a pity. I was, too.
I went back and looked at the cars waiting at the stoplight. I still had to sell the candies, one by one, or else my mother would beat me.
The next day he stopped the car and honked. I came running like mad.
Inside the car I was happier than lying in my own bed, hard as a rock. I bounced around like a child.
“Stop being such a fool, girl. You act like you’ve never been in a car before.”
He had eyes that were just like the moon, hair that seemed like a cloud, hands full of wrinkles. He would touch me and then give me coins to put in my piggy bank.
“When you grow up, that piggy bank will be full of coins from your old man,” he would say.
“I’m going to buy a house for Momma and I’m going to get married wearing a bridal garland and veil, just like the girls on T.V.”
He laughed at me because he liked hearing about my dreams.
I asked him if one day he wanted to be someone’s husband, but it was already time to leave. I had to get out of the car and walk through the scrub by myself.
Another day I asked him to take me to see the ocean. I’d never seen the ocean close up, only on T.V.
“It’s dangerous. The ocean is immense.”
“Will it swallow me up?”
He called me a silly girl and said that I should get rid of such crazy ideas, that it was better for me to keep on selling candy in traffic than to imagine such nonsense.
Then he made a mean face. It made me want to burst out crying.
But I still had to go through the scrub and fetch the basket I’d hidden between a rock and a mound.
I wanted nothing more than to see the ocean. At night, in bed, when the moon would shine through the window with the kind of light that lit up the whole house, I kept dreaming of another world, different than this one, far from everything, without candies to sell in traffic jams, without that deserted scrub to trudge through.
“So, you don’t want to take me to see the beach? I’ll do anything to get near the ocean. And I won’t even tell anyone. When I get near the water, I’m going to dive in like a fish, take off my clothes and swim around just like in a stream.”
He started laughing.
“Go away, leave me alone, I’m sick of your chatter! Your place in life is here in the middle of nowhere, selling candies to buy some beans and rice.”
Hearing that made me nearly vomit, almost spoiling his pants with the remains of mush and beans I ate the day before. Repulsive old man.
“Get out, go on! And see that you don’t show up again tomorrow with these lunatic ideas!”
And off I went, as miserable as a tree with no fruit. Isolated, like something less than human. Happiness was so hard to find in this life.
All night long I imagined the sound of the ocean, a sort of droning like a ghost makes, and remembered that half-dead old man, who only wanted to take advantage of how young I was. Oh, God, if Momma found out where I was earning those coins, she’d tan my hide.
The next day a car stopped on the corner, asked me for a bag of candies, and asked if I wanted to go for a ride around the block. I said no. “I’m saving up money to go see the ocean,” I said proudly. The man laughed and asked if it was the ocean in the northeast or in the southeast. I answered that the ocean was the ocean, it didn’t matter if it was in one place or another. All I wanted to see was the ocean. And he laughed again. Some pretty music was playing on the radio in his car, so I started singing along: “Poor dark man / who waits in the calm of the night / for the moon to shine on his plot of land / with only a yard to keep him company...”
Wide-eyed, the nasty man stared at me and said, “Where the hell did a little girl like you learn to sing that?”
“I’m not a little girl, sir. I’ve got the soul of a grown-up woman, one who’s seen life. One who’s getting worn down by life.”
“Come inside, young lady,” he said, opening the door. “I want to bring you to see the world. There’s more than just the ocean in the world; it has stars, it has the moon, it has rivers, and it has dreams.”
And it has a nasty man with no shame, I thought. I stood there glued to the pavement, looking at the car door wide open for me to come in. I didn’t get in. I wanted to see the ocean with the other man. The old man with hair like a cloud, with eyes like the moon. The one who would make an ugly face that I liked so much.
“Nope, I can’t, boy.” And I left, weaving my way between the cars with my basket.
“Get in! Get in, you pathetic thing! Bitch!” The old man with the hair like a cloud screamed at me as he flung open the door of his car in the middle of the street. He was fuming, his body sweating, the sun gone from his face.
“No, I can’t,” I answered.
“I’ll come after you, you cow!” the old man said. “Get in now or I’ll drag you in!”
I stood pale and cringing in the midst of horns honking, the candies rustling, the song echoing as it faded away. Momma, I lied to you, forgive me! I was afraid. I was ashamed. The old man’s moon eyes were now shooting fire, like some kind of demon. He pulled me in by the neck and pressed it against the back of the car seat. It was suffocating.
“Don’t kill me!” I stammered.
“You want to see the ocean, don’t you? Isn’t that why you go around offering yourself to any man who goes by?” He climbed on top of me with his whole weight, like someone in charge, like someone wounded, moving forcefully, angrily, with a broken heart, with hatred. When he was done, he sucked my lips into his mouth and bit hard with his sharp teeth, like someone chewing a piece of chicken.
“You want to see the ocean? You want to see the ocean?” He got back in the driver’s seat, grabbed the steeling wheel, and took off like a whistling rocket between the cars, tires singing, praying, praying, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, oh Lord, I forgot the rest, I missed mass, I had to sell candies at the stoplight. So now what do I say?
The car sped along, crossing highways and bridges, flowing like a river toward the ocean. Before I could get out, the old man grabbed me by the arm as if he were my master, saying, “And all that money I gave you, all the times you lay down with me, you just forgot it all for the sake of a bizarre wish to see this stinking ocean? Answer me!”
A cold night wind whipping along the beach silenced everything.
It was time.
“Go on! There’s your ocean!”
I got out of the car, frightened but expressionless, not sure if the ocean was really an ocean. I walked through the sand without looking back, without looking forward, through the darkness overtaken by the noise of the waves, feeling my way with my feet that led me to the pounding surf. I never imagined the encounter would be so painful.
Only music could express my dreams. “If God only knew / of the sadness on top of the hill / He would send up / all the love there is on earth...” I took off my blouse first, then my sandals, slowly taking off the rest of my clothes piece by piece, like someone saying a prayer.
“Virgin Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”
Without anything left for life to clothe me in dignity.
I fell into the ocean, entering the waters like someone entering a new world, like someone transported, with a clenched heart ready to open for love.
I dove and dove again.
And laughing out loud.
I’d left the old man behind, the master of agony, master of unending disappointments.
As for him, he got the world he deserved.
That hell that appeared day after day.
As for me, this victory!
Even if it might look like pain.
“Will it swallow me up?”
ALEX ANDRADE is a writer and art educator. He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1971 and began to write stories as a child.
Alex has published two children’s books, A galinha malcriada [The Naughty Chicken] and O pequeno Hamlet [Little Hamlet], both inspired by the works of the English bard William Shakespeare.
In 2001, he published his first book of short stories, A suspeita da imperfeição [The Suspicion of Imperfection], to great acclaim. He is also the author of the novel Longe dos olhos [Out of Sight]; another book of short stories, Poema [Poem]―one of its stories was translated to English and featured here―, and the forthcoming book Amores, truques e outras versões [Love Affairs, Ruses, and Other Versions].
Alex works with a reading incentive program, supported by the Rio de Janeiro City Hall, in which authors and storytellers bring literature to life for children and families in impoverished neighborhoods and communities.
In his blog, readers can follow Alex’s literary whereabouts.
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