When I was married we spent every carnival out-of-town, like any self-respecting carioca. Let the tourists have the run of the place with its beery crowds, urine-soaked sidewalks, noise, smoke, skin and general chaos; carnival is for deserted beaches. Carnival is for skiing in Colorado.
Which is what my children went to do with my ex.
I was thrilled. Finally I’d get to experience the debauchery firsthand. In the last few years, the cariocas who stay home at Carnival have revived the street aspect of the celebration, banding together in neighborhood groups, or blocos, that dress up according to a common theme and song, to parade around singing, playing drums, drinking and carousing.
This I was gonna do. I still thought of that wondrous night at Rio Scenarium with Fabiano, and was bent on kissing strangers. And so many cariocas say they’ve met their boyfriends or husbands at Carnival, when everything goes.
When I was married we once went to a Caribbean island over the carnival holiday. My Brazilian ex—who annually watches the Brazilian carnival parade broadcast until two or three in the morning — preferred to read Tom Clancy on the beach, rather than attend the local parade. After much interrogation, he finally looked up from his book and explained that St. Bart’s would not have topless women in their parade.
Now that I was single in Rio, I was not going to watch the Carnival parade from a corporate box seat and eat caviar and drink champagne. I was not going to put on a stiff heavy costume and headdress, samba down the parade avenue pretending to know the words to the song, and ride the subway home dripping glitter and sequins. I was not going to stay up late and watch jiggling flesh on television.
I’d met a wonderful man who lived in the same city as my family. But since, as one Brazilian put it, “Don’t you need one pair of glasses for far away and one pair for reading?” my mission was to meet someone local. So now I was going to get drunk and kiss a whole lot of strangers.
Friday night, I kicked off the five-day festivities by drinking caipirinhas and beer at a couple of bars with some young friends. Two of them fell in love across the table from each other, like magnets.
A wonderful omen. “Let’s go find the bloco,” I urged. We went out into the litter-strewn street, where hawkers sold funny headgear and beer and Smirnoff Ice from Styrofoam coolers. The bloco was long gone, there was no music, and I suddenly felt very tired. And so I got into a taxi; tomorrow would be another day.
But I woke up with a cold, and the weather began to rain and turn chilly.
In Rio de Janeiro there is absolutely nothing worse than chilly rainy weather. Cariocas say they fade without the sun. When I used to live in São Paulo and would come to visit, the light of Rio’s sky blinded me when I got off the plane. It’s sunny so much of the time that when the weather turns bad, it’s like a huge black curtain has fallen over everything and everyone stays home to mourn. People get crabby. Malls and movies just don’t do it for people who are used to walking, running, swimming, surfing, rowing, paddling, sailing, fishing, cycling, wake-boarding, hiking, climbing, water-skiing, jet-skiing, windsailing, scuba-diving, snorkeling and kite-surfing. When it’s raining I bet that not even the robbers come out.
To warm up, some people drink red wine—and in the winter there’s a bizarre local penchant for fondue. But if you are accompanied, winter or summer, the best tack in Rio’s devastatingly chilly 66-degree [19 Celsius] temperatures is to tuck into soul-saving caipirinhas and a hearty feijoada, the pork-and-bean stew developed from leftovers by slaves.
Though carnival is a moveable feast, it does always fall in February or March, summer months in the southern hemisphere, a time when the year-end rains have usually spun themselves out and it’s simply hot and sunny and conducive to wild behavior.
Of which I was having none. Sitting at home with the new daschund puppy, Strudel, while my sons were skiing in Colorado, windows battened against intermittent downpours, I wiped my nose and read. Sometimes I heard sound trucks going by, blasting samba, tailed by parading blocos. My breathing clogged, I got up and looked out. Soaked dancers weaved to and from the beach. In an apartment across the street, a carnival party got underway. People were drinking, dancing and wearing masks and skimpy clothes. Must be gringos, I thought, feeling forlorn and bitter. Once in a while Strudel and I worked our way through a forest of bare legs just outside the local juice bar. I recognized no one.
It can’t rain at Carnival!!! I sat and read and wiped my nose and talked to Strudel. He agreed that my children would soon have their own lives and my friends were all away and what good is it living in one of the world’s most beautiful and exciting cities if there is no real reason to be there?
If I had six months left to live I’d want to be near my family. I’d met a wonderful man who lived in the same city as they do and I was absolutely not doing my best to find out how important he was to me. And it seemed that the fact that I’d been completely unable to kiss even one measly drunk stranger was a message from the universe. If I was, as Lívio the ambassador had warned that day at our one-caipirinha lunch, this incompetent in my search for a local boyfriend, perhaps there was a reason.
For over twenty years I’d allowed my Brazilian husband to convince me that his country was better than mine, that Brazilians were more elegant, smarter. Now I could see the truth. It was time to go home. It was my chance to find out if Martin was the man of my life.
The last night of Carnival is Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. I was working in the living room but at one point returned to my computer to Google something. There was an email. An email from a guy on the Parperfeito dating site. I clicked.
“Olá” was the title of the message. He’d read my profile and thought it interesting. Just as I was getting up to return to my book in the living room, the guy appeared on Parperfeito’s instant message channel. I clicked.
“Olá,” he wrote. “Olá,” I wrote back. Olá means “Hi there.”
Actually he was quite original, having left his wife after 25 years of marriage with no girlfriend in sight. He’d not only been married the same amount of time as I; his kids were the same age as mine. “My ex isn’t interested in culture,” he told me. “I like opera.” Having recently discovered classical music for myself, I found this attractive. Also, he was a Jewish doctor and lived in Leblon. This meant he’d made something of himself. Possibly not a loser. All of this lifted the corners of my mouth.
“You want to see what I look like?”
“Are you wearing a shirt?”
By the time I explained about the scarily shirtless guy I’d met online, he’d turned on his webcam and I could tell he had a good sense of humor because he laughed. He had a nice face—sweet, intelligent, expressive.
“I’m sick with a cold,” I complained. He prescribed medicine.
He was living in an apart-hotel. “I’m going out to get some dinner,” he said. “If you weren’t ill I’d invite you to accompany me.”
“Thanks,” I wrote back. “I’ll just go out and buy the medicine you prescribed, take it and go to bed.”
Miracle of miracles, I felt well enough in the morning to go out for a run. At last it was actually a sunny day. After my shower I text-messaged the doctor. “You cured me!”
“Thank God,” he texted back. “This way you’re not going to sue me.”
In Brazil malpractice suits hardly exist but he knew how it is in the U.S. Another good sign: awareness of the world beyond Rio de Janeiro.
I began to read the newspaper, but I sensed I’d be getting another message.
“I’m walking along the beach,” it said. “Why don’t you come down and meet me?”
I took Strudel and went to sit on one of the short posts meant to discourage motorists from parking on the median strip. The sun made his fur shine and felt good on my shoulders. Legions of mildewed cariocas strode along the avenue, chests thrust forward, obviously anxious to dry out after four days of rain and drinking. The doctor had told me he was wearing dark blue Bermudas. Strudel and I sat there on the lookout, ready as we’d ever be for the meeting in the flesh.
And there he came in his navy blue Bermudas and blue t-shirt.
Bobbling, smiling at us, veering off from the march of sun-worshippers.
This man had skin. Petticoats of skin that ran down his body in overlapping layers. It all bobbled. Kissing me on each cheek, the Jewish doctor said, “Hello. I did the stomach surgery three years ago. I’m doing the skin surgery on the 19th.”
“Oh,” I breathed. “Nice to meet you.” And we walked to the end of the beach and back with Strudel and the doctor talked and talked and talked.
I never saw him again—I think. Maybe I just haven’t recognized him.
When I got home and had wiped off Strudel’s paws, the phone rang. It was the married realtor, from whom I hadn’t heard since I’d turned down his proposal for a threesome.
“I haven’t forgotten you,” he says. “How is everything? How are your children?”
“Fine. I have a cold. They’ve gone skiing with my ex.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that. Is it hard to talk about your ex?”
Before I can say yes or no, he’s gone on.
“You know, just before Christmas I was driving over to your place—you’re not going to believe this but it’s true—with a giant box of chocolates. What happened is that my mother got into the car and asked whom they were for. I had to give them to her.”
He seems to have understood that I’m not well enough for him to drop by the way he used to, even though my children are conveniently out of town.
“Do you think about me?” he asks.
“Always,” I say slyly.
“Why don’t you call, then?”
I could ask the same question. “I don’t know—my heart and body are kind of taken up,” I say. “You know, the guy in Chicago.”
“It’s not cheating,” he explains. “If you think of me you should call. It’s just two friends, getting together.”
“Yeah. I’ll see.”
“Promise me you’ll call next weekend?”
“I promise.” A Brazilian promise, easily broken, easily forgiven.
“When you feel like it,” he concludes, “Don’t repress yourself.”
American-born, Julia Michaels has lived in Brazil for almost thirty years. Her contribution is part of a memoir-in-progress about the last four years: Single in Rio, City of Love.