Not yet 09:00 AM and already he could feel a drop of sweat forming on his brow. A hat would have helped, but hats hide your eyes, and for Juan Manuel, his eyes were his meal ticket. He supposed it was his own fault, as he imagined most things were. After all it was he who had chosen to sit here in the sun when there was cool shade on the far side of the boulevard. But this was no ordinary boulevard. He sat on El Malecon, the grand avenue which bordered the famous Ipanema beach, the link between land and sea, commerce and pleasure. In the cool shade of the grand hotels, office towers and luxury apartments, business men hurried off to appointments, maids hustled school children off to their classes, and society women shopped and lunched. All hurried; few knew why.
Here in the sun, just metres away, was another world. Cart vendors sold beer and potent Cachaça made from fermented sugar cane. No one hurried here. Lovers walked the Malecon hand in hand, and a constant stream of beachgoers beat the samba rhythm of brush on cymbal as their sandals slid across the sandy pavement. He sighed, and said a silent prayer. God decides our lot in life, and who am I, Juan Manuel Del Mar, to challenge his will? The sun tests me, but it is a small price to pay to sit on the edge of an earthly paradise. What more could a man want? In his heart, he knew the answer to his own question, but kept it there, lest his thoughts or body betray his emotion. He was blessed with life, he deserved no more joy, or punishment, than that.
And so he sat, as he had each day for more days than he cared to remember. Many knew him, and greeted him as they passed. Some had known him since they were children, coming to the beach with their parents. Now they came with their friends, the girls stage whispering as ‘Shhhh!’ if they were alone with a young man. “I saw nothing”, he would assure them and they would run off giggling. He knew much however.
The beach was neutral territory, rich and poor came to worship the sun, and on Sundays after church, when the Malecon was closed to traffic, it was a veritable parade of humanity. Each with their secrets, or so they thought. Yes, he knew much. But disclosed little. You learn more being still than talking he had discovered. And talking to the wrong people could be unhealthy in Rio, which had secrets of its own. Sunday was his favorite day though, even if It seemed that all of Rio was here, and double that in stinking tourists. Hush, he chided himself, who are you to have uncharitable thoughts?
And there was something more in a Sunday. Sunday was the day She came to the beach. He was very much in tune with the rhythm of the Malecon, he didn’t need to see the policeman, merely hear the tap of his nightstick against his hand. The cologne of a politician announced his arrival long before the papery whisper of his spoiled wife’s silk hose. But She. She was different. As She walked to the beach, her arrival was announced by the quite, respectful whistles of the vendors, the slap of a woman’s hand on her lover’s arm, as he followed Her with his eyes. She was tall, her stride long, the clack of her heels a statement; the backbeat to the rasp of the sandals. She smelled of coconut and jasmine, as if the essence of night and day had been combined into a summer breeze. She was, in his humble opinion, the essence of Rio.
She approached. He extended his hand. Raised his face to the sun. His blind eyes unblinking, the scars his jailer had left his one hope at pity, a few centavos perhaps.
But, it was not to be. Not today. By her gait, he knew.
She looked straight ahead not at he.