Brazilian Vacation by Cécile Barlier

It’s insane to try to sort days out of days. Some days you have it and some you don’t, but the thing you have or not is never just one thing: it is a stockpile, an accumulation, a buildup, a collection, a pool, and that pool is not filled in twenty-four hours. There’s the dramatic: days of deaths, dismemberments, detentions, immurements, stoning, impaling, holes poked in the back of heads by vultures to get at the brain, intestines cleaned up by desert ants, but on a scale from one to ten that goes from horrid to nice, most days fluctuate between a six and a nine, and most people rarely hit a less than five, or if they do, it’s a consistent pattern because their pool is really filled with shit. And then there are the wishy-washy, the non-ratable days; at face value those days qualify as profoundly sordid, yet there is a way in which they are also luminous. These are the days that inform your life in ways that make you clearly confused. My experience of these is extensive.

Photo of reflection of car in sideview mirror
Photo by Michael Skok on Unsplash

* * *

That day I made the great mistake of taking an hour-long nap under the afternoon sun. When I woke up, I opened an extra slim book: How to Avoid Huge Ships by Captain Trimmer. I did this without thinking, like someone grabs a glass of water or a cigarette upon awakening. I wasn’t certain of where I was; reality was taking its time in coming back. It didn’t bother me. I didn’t feel terrible. I opened the book. In the moment, I didn’t read a line; instead there was a smashed spider inside the cover. I got so ensnared with the skeleton that I lost track of my own puzzlement and started to speculate. How did the spider end there? Did she crawl there alone? Did she flatten herself so as not to indent the pages? Who was so cruel to slam a book shut on a small living thing? Me?

Then reality took over and I vomited in the grass over the edge of the hammock, which had acquired a smell I couldn’t identify; something akin to hemp straw, cat piss, and gunflint. It made me dizzy trying to isolate each of the sub-smells which subsisted under the acid hints of my own spew.

I staggered down the patio that wrapped around the house. Little by little, I remembered. I was in Brazil spending a vacation with Elena. I had drunk too much at lunch. The distant traffic blew by in waves that commingled with those of the nearby ocean, every single one of them hurrying off toward a final yet never-ending crash against the walls of the house. I went inside through one of the floor-to-ceiling glass doors and stopped on the threshold of the monstrously big living room with its equally scandalously sized sofa. I checked in all directions for any other fellow human; nothing moved but the blades of the ceiling fans and the leaves of the indoor fern. I spotted the only familiar piece in the room—a navy blue T-shirt of Elena’s left unfolded on one of the barstools. I felt relieved at the sight of Elena’s T-shirt. As I moved in closer to the bar, I felt the wind from the fans and awakening sensations of adolescent yearning. I met Elena on a windy day in a bar-terrace in Florida. Same wind, same sensations. I poured myself a glass of water to wash away the persistent taste of vomit. I sat on one of the barstools with one foot resting on the footrest and the other dangling, just like I used to in that bar-terrace. Same position. Same state of mind. Half settled with the ability to swivel around and capture different angles of everything ahead of me.

I could see far outside the house through the open glass doors. The horizon was empty except for a silhouette at the far end that looked stationary yet grew in size much like an airplane seen from the top of a hill when it is flying in your direction. If I had noticed the silhouette when I first sat on the stool, I would have gone outside to sit on the edge of the patio as if holding the fort. There was some shame associated with being caught inside during a vacation: the hot and guilty pleasure of boredom. Alex: what are you doing inside on such a beautiful day? Words from my childhood that stuck like gum under the shoe. Then reality hit a second time: just as we sat down for lunch, Elena had confided that she was three weeks pregnant.

Often, when trying to avoid something undefined, coaching yourself to be ready, danger presents itself in spades. This is exactly what happened. The silhouette grew big enough to form a man who I thought was familiar. One of the guys who rented the house next door? I became so fascinated by the image of this ever-growing man headed in my direction that I completely let my guard down. The man was within fifty meters of the house; he walked fast and his upper body seemed to travel ahead of his legs; he was looking straight at me, his short arms angled by his side vaguely reminiscent of a traveling T-Rex. My first impulse was to run. Just sneak out through the side door of the kitchen and hide in the acacia bushes in the back. I had felt something violent about the man from the start. Even from afar, his silhouette threatened like a black rain cloud. As he grew closer, the near absence of neck and the rusty hues in his skin made him a textbook candidate for the Bad and the Ugly. Effusive attention to facial hair, traces of comb, and a half shaving that left a studied black fuzz of various delineated thickness. And the white shirt opened low on a gold medal. Who wore that kind of outfit anymore except scums who got stuck in some seventies lyrics? Loony punks in perpetual search of a culprit like depraved alley cats chasing their own tail. I remained, eyelids half closed, riveted to the glass of water as though studying the depth of my own thoughts or something, but I knew he would be on me in a second. This guy could be anybody, I thought. What if he’s part of some local cartel. You never know. Out here next to nowhere. Exactly the type of terrain that’s ideal for their operation. Endless dunes formed by the trade winds. Isolation. Wind. Wealthy tourists in search of sensations. But it was too late to get away, and I wasn’t going to let some madman catch me from behind.

He walked through the open glass door and planted himself right in front of me. The mighty breeze from his aftershave caused me to catch my breath. I tried my best to look up into his eyes, puzzled yet cool.

I thought I’d let a brief pause settle, but he interrupted it.

“You,” he said. “You’re Alex?”

“That’s me.”

“Where’s Elena?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Do you know where Elena is?” he asked again.

“No—no, not exactly. Probably left for a swim after lunch. She must be at the beach.”

“She’s not,” he said flatly.

“Oh—how do you know?”

“I was just there. I found her purse though. This one?” Elena’s denim tote dangled from his small hand. “With a card in it: Elena and Alex Dobrev? That you?” He held the card to my face. For an obscure reason, Elena had also written down the address for the rental under our names.

“Well, yes…”

“So she’s not at the beach; could she be here now?” he asked.

“I don’t think so. I was sleeping, but I would have heard.”

“Better check, right?” he said. “Better safe than sorry,” he added like this was some local joke. “Where’s the bedroom?” he asked.

“I’ll go check,” I said and the thought of T-Rex checking our bedroom opened up a hole in my chest.

He pushed through to the kitchen, rotating his nearly absent neck in each direction to scan the room.

“Elena!” I shouted on my way to the bedroom, and her name got stuck in the air and pinged right back to me. “Elena!”

It took me a half second to realize that he was calling her too while searching the other rooms. It was horrible to hear him call her name, no less horrible than me barging in the bedroom and finding him on top of her. But he wasn’t, and she wasn’t. There was just the bed, and a ray of Brazilian sunlight crossing the crumpled bedsheets.

I reunited with T-Rex by the bar, and he lifted his small arms up in a show of helplessness.

“Is that her T-shirt?” he asked, pointing at the navy-blue T-shirt.

“Yes,” I said.

“Was she wearing it today?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” He extended the word know as though it might have deep connotations.

“I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure?”

The way he kept restating what I said with an added question mark was beginning to get on my nerves.

“Do you have a cell phone?”

I had a cell phone, which looked and weighed like a brick. It had a retractable antenna that made it look like a walkie-talkie. I had satellite service even down in northeastern Brazil. My cell phone was cutting-edge technology, and it owed me Elena’s smart-ass remarks.

“In case she wants to reach you while we look for her back at the beach,” he added, enunciating each syllable as if he were spitting seeds from a clementine.

“No, I don’t have a cell phone,” I said. “But I’ll leave a note here so she knows where to find us.”

This lie gave me the illusion of regaining some ground even though T-Rex looked at me with a huge question mark on his forehead. He stayed beside me as I started scribbling. He must have noticed I flipped out having him looking over my shoulder because he left the room and waited by the glass door. Just before I went out, I grabbed Elena’s T-shirt and tucked the brick inside it just in case.

There’s a subtle and not so subtle way in which nature tells us of an impending disaster. The tilt is everything: the low angle of the sunlight, the incline of the trail that rises to the beach, the Hitchcockian track of a Brazilian sparrow, the way you lower your nose in response to the accrual of the gradients while continuing to scan the soil as if looking deeply into the essence of a mystery, the forward silhouette of a T-Rex. There is no hiding from the slants of an impending disaster; the landscape becomes pointed like the iron filings in a magnet drawing. This was exactly one such moment. Still, I chose to completely ignore it. I chose to follow a short-armed stranger telling me to look for Elena. I clasped the brick inside Elena’s T-shirt and periodically sniffed on it like a detection dog. A few times, T-Rex turned around to check if I was still following, and as we exchanged glances, I could sense how he was becoming more ill-disposed and suspicious. People hate to be looked at from behind. I’ve seen it happen. They hate the sensation of eyes in their back. Very few people will not turn around to make it stop. This has been my experience anyway.

Now T-Rex stopped on the side of the trail. He turned to face me and crossed his arms. He waited for me to catch up with him. My eyes never lifted from the ground although I was acutely aware of his position and posture.

“You’re not in a rush?” he said almost softly. I didn’t dignify him with a response; instead I tried burping inside to relieve trapped gas bubbles and the remnants of drunkenness.

“You don’t feel good?” he asked.

How many unanswered questions could he align in a row? I realized that everything T-Rex had said so far systematically ended with a question. A quiet alarm came with my discovery; this guy was the kind that made you uncomfortable no matter what—like Police. The sight of him told you with certainty of the existence of your misdeeds. Whether you knew what they were or not didn’t matter at all; he would bend you in the right direction with his never-ending questions. I was guilty—for sure. The only real question was how long it would take before he and I would zero in on my offenses.

“She’s expecting,” I said.

“Expecting?” he said. “We’d better hurry.” And he set me back in motion with a pat on the back.

As I walked, I was struck with a form of paralysis of the will, hoping this whole sequence would pass as quickly as it had started. For now we climbed the last dune before the beach, and I kept all my focus on T-Rex’s feet, since he was wearing a pair of green rubber flip-flops and I’d never seen a grown male wearing a toe ring. His left index toe glimmered, entwined by a silver scorpion with tiny turquoise eyes. His big toe kept rubbing over the center strap in a magnetic, undulating rhythm as though flirting with the scorpion.

“Don’t worry. We’ll find her.”

Although I shouldn’t have found his remark particularly reassuring, there was something in his tone that made me soften a bit.

 

No one was on the beach. It was both idyllic and disturbing: the golden filtered light, the molten lead of the wet sand, the black cutout of a mango tree, the tracks of solitary walkers, the calm full of sighs of the Atlantic. I watched T-Rex walk across the stretch of sand toward the water.

I remained stolid and frozen, feet shoulder-width apart, eyes alternatively riveted on T-Rex and on the horizon line, like a lead actor relegated to a walk-on role, as though my life’s camera was slipping out of hands. But I knew something was terribly off or at least about to be terribly off.

I was right. T-Rex took his clothes off. Not just his shirt and his pants, he took everything off, including his sage-green bikini-style briefs: the ones with white contrast trims and plush elastic waistband. At this stage of the proceedings, I was blank. Or worse. I was devoid of any logical thinking and decision-making capacity. I was all gut. What if this was a ploy to get me to follow him here to a deserted idyllic beach? What if he thinks I like him—not just like him but want him. The thought perforated my stomach like an arrow. Drinking at lunch was a horrible mistake. Staying alone for a nap was a horrible mistake. This vacation in general was a horrible mistake. I was doomed. Elena was doomed. We were all doomed.

“She may have tried to swim to the rock out there. A lot of people get stranded this way when the tide turns. I’m going in!” T-Rex shouted as he spun around briefly to make this announcement.

Before he went in, he put his hair in a ponytail. There was just enough hair for that operation, and where he got the elastic to do so was beyond me. As he waded in and splashed some water around the nape of his absent neck, my heart remained oddly still. I tried my best to look as if I was scanning the ocean instead of T-Rex’s body. The reality about Elena’s disappearance was starting to kick in more severely, like a slow drug traveling its way to the core. What a jerk I was to let this naked monster come to her rescue.

There are moments where your mind races but doesn’t find its path to your body at all.

 

I stood there watching T-Rex swim in the direction of the rock, get there, and disappear behind it. It crossed my mind that I hadn’t asked for his name, and a fly flew right into my eye carried full force by a gust of wind. I rubbed and closed my eyes. I did this to alleviate the pain but also to erase the menace like when I was a kid facing danger. I still do that. Sometimes I think that if I close my eyes, I will expunge the threats from the world around me. It has worked occasionally. At any rate it has done it for me.

When I reopened my eyes. That’s when I saw them. Near the horizon line to the left of the rock, two dots in the ocean. One dot could have been a drifting buoy or a discarded plastic jug, but two, that was just too many for that. And now the dots kind of settled down some and just lurked there in the water with the lowering sun cutting through and under the clouds. I told myself that I’d better do something. I stood up and went in until the water was just at waist level.

Underwater photo of kids
Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Water was choppy, but there were no real waves to speak of. It was getting dark and I could feel the mix of cold and warm water running through my legs. The dots were moving really slowly, and I had to focus and use one hand as a visor to see them. Finally as they got about thirty meters away, I could see it was them: T-Rex and Elena, just floating there. Elena buoyed by T-Rex, who was redder than ever before. And for a second, I had a doubt. What were they doing? What did the choppy water hide that I could not see? And somehow the sight of them stopped all the inner chatter in my head. It created a silence all around, as if I wasn’t really there, as if my only task was to observe them treading water and whatever else in the descending dusk.

And then I heard T-Rex talking—saying something out loud as he was holding Elena’s head out of the water. I thought, at first, he was talking to me, but he wasn’t; he was talking to her and he was saying, “Everything is gonna be all right, now” in the gentlest, kindest voice; just talking like that, and repeating it like a parent would to a child who was just hit by a car and lying on the side of the street, trying to convince it that the worst was over and it could only get better. And he kept talking like that until they got quite close, close enough for Elena to watch me in the eye and not talk. I tried to think of something to say, but I felt something under water. Then, one last thought—this one froze my blood up solid.

Sharks. Just skulking out there like they ought to be at sunset in tropical waters. In hunting mode. The dimming light perfect to locate floaties for dinner. And before I could get further down that line of thought, T-Rex and Elena were beside me, and the three of us walked back out to the beach. Aside from our particular circumstance, if there had been any by-passers, they might have thought T-Rex, Elena, and I were enjoying the last happy hour of the day. And as we got out of there, to the beach, to safe grounds, T-Rex slid his bikini briefs back up as quickly as he could, though at that point no one cared. I studied Elena’s profile, hoping for a small aperture. Relief? But there was nothing I’d expected: no anger, no fear residues; I couldn’t read her—only a cool calmness. She turned to T-Rex and she said thank you. Thank you so much. And T-Rex smiled quietly. And I had this strange wish that the brick would ring right then, all tucked as it was in Elena’s blue T-shirt. The ring. Insistent and annoying. Unraveling the sunset, tearing it apart. A ring without end—waiting for someone to answer and stop it.


Cécile Barlier was born in France and received her master’s degree from the Sorbonne University in Paris. For over two decades, she has lived in the United States, where she is raising her family and working as an entrepreneur. She has been a regular student and occasional teacher at the Writer’s Studio in San Francisco. Her short stories A Gypsy’s Book of Revelations and Forgetting have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Forgetting is featured in Epiphany’s 30th Anniversary Anthology. She won the 2019 Grace Paley Prize for short fiction. Other work has been widely featured (or is forthcoming) in a variety of literary magazines including Amarillo BayValparaiso Fiction Review, Cerise Press and Delmarva Review.

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