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“Oh Rio, you’re the best son-of-a-bitch I know,” Brianna says. She rounds her lips, exhaling peppery smoke out of a cracked window. With our asses half-perched on the windowsill, I hesitate reaching for her pack.
“Yes, of course, please take one. You deserve it.”
Brianna’s clothes flap like artificial tree leaves under thin, wooden boards and recycled clothesline pins adjacent to the windowsill. Under bobbing red curls, she smiles precariously. Her lips guess at expressions; the humid air dampens their corners. A firework crackles, fading in the distance and she extends her neck out the window.
Looking back toward me, she laughs and says, “Well, I hope you feel safe now.”
Two days ago, I met Brianna at Ipanema beach beside Posto 9.
“This,” she presses her bare foot against the sweating cooler, “is Caparini mix.” Tilting the cooler, she hands me a drink and tucks her fallen, cherry hair back behind petite, oval ears. “And always leave your lime after you finish a drink. By the time we leave this beach, I want to see at least five in your cup.”
Leaning back in my chair, I push my feet under the sand and tilt my straw sunhat down to my eyebrows. Her friends speak Portuguese as passing vendors kick sand under stratified, white gowns, and beautifully exotic women tan in g-string, Brazilian bikinis amidst the sticky, sweltering heat. Magnificent, distant, tropical mountains luster trapped in humidity’s haze, and although the beach is crowded and plumps of smoke waver above everyone, the beach water is clean, refreshing, pristine and gorgeous to turn in and watch the shore’s madness foregrounded to the white, reaching skyscrapers of Rio.
“So, tell me,” Brianna says refilling my cup, her nose perspiring in the heat. “Why is it out of all the couchsurfers in Rio, and I know there’s a lot, you asked to stay with me?”
“Well, you have good references, which is always important, and I remember too that in your pictures you’re always doing something fun, but honestly, I really want to stay in a favela.”
“You want,” she laughs hard from her chest pausing dramatically, “to stay in a favela?”
Now her friends are listening too, and I drink my Caparini, preparing a proper answer.
“I’ve been reading and hearing about them before I even arrived, and they seem pretty safe now since the government ordered them to be pacified.”
“Some are safe now,” her friend interjects raising out a finger. “There’s still a lot of problems with the police here, and it’s not like pacification happened and now everything’s fine. You still really have to be careful.”
Diluting the frankness, Brianna’s maroon painted fingertips touch my hand. “You’ll be fine. I live in one of the safest favelas, and the people there know me, and we all take care of one another.”
“But still,” her friend cuts in again, “you can’t say your place is completely safe: there’s fireworks almost every night.”
“Fireworks?” I ask.
“When police are spotted entering a favela, the community sets off fireworks to warn everyone and give them time to grab their guns. It rarely actually comes to a shootout, but…I don’t mean to scare you.” Her coffee-colored hands lift the cooler making its ice rattle. “I’m really glad people want to see the favelas, and it’s important to see them, but don’t go in there like everything’s safe now. It’s too easy to get lost and suddenly wind up in a dangerous area.”
As we leave the beach, Brianna coyly suggests, “We should take the motorcycles back up.” I grab the back of the driver’s moist, white shirt and we curve the road, honking before blind turns. And as I watch shirtless children run between tawdry, single-good stores and telephone wires traversed in the sky like black spiderwebs, and the yellow and blue favela buildings stack past one another like bus seats, I feel safe, secure, and sincerely in love with Rio.
I suppose it was my fault, though.
I suppose I shouldn’t have skipped the motorcycle ride back up to her place the next day. I suppose I shouldn’t have chosen to walk, and I suppose I should have known that I was going to get lost in those repeating zig-zag streets. I suppose I should have recognized the corner where she put a hand onto my shoulder and said, “Never take a left here. The street’s too skinny for police to go through on motorcycles, so it’s still quite dangerous.” I suppose I should have turned around.
I had only just realized I was lost when the man pulled his knife on me.
A shirtless, bare-chested teenager pokes my arm with his blade. His fanatic eyes look past me and at me simultaneously, and he shouts enraged gibberish to my foreign ears.
I don’t understand. I reach into my pocket and remove eighty Reals. His speech gets louder, eyes more delirious, and still I don’t understand. It’s not a lot, but it’s all I have on me. He pushes the knife closer to my chest yelling that same incomputable gibberish.
There’s shouts behind me, and he shakily lowers the knife, pushes me, and runs away. A small crowd forms in the murky, opaque sound, and unfamiliar hands guide me towards the main street and hail a taxi.
As I look out Brianna’s window, the sun turns peach orange sliding leisurely behind the oval, shadowed cliffs of the Dois Irmaos mountains. They rest like propped knees above the dark blue and orange light newly draped across the ocean.