Thus, Natal and the eastern coast had become only too real for me. Not that the lure of some misbegotten memory was gone: it was simply that an indecisive mood had come into crisp focus.
I, as a tourist, once had an agenda. As a traveler, I could accept the shifts in expectations and adapt accordingly. The ghosts of logic were no longer just out of visual perception: they lingered... yet kept their distance.
That such an awareness had everything to do with my three-year absence from Natal and little to do with my return, did not occur to me until I stepped foot in the Sol-Mar Hotel.
The cab driver loitered, as an apology for accepting too large a tip, and the receptionist banged upon the breast shape of the bell, grinning with amazement to see that I really did exist.
Aurélio ran out of the manager’s station, jumped the counter, landed with a flourish, and he embraced me, curiously, for the first time.
It seemed that I was back on familiar ground.
Then I looked around me, at the new faces, and over the deterioration that had continued through the years since I had first stayed at Aurélio’s hoteis.
The carpet was now entirely gone from the stairs leading to the second floor; the original metal railing had been replaced recently by wooden improvisations; the bell captain wore no uniform. His gun was worn in a hip holster, for easy withdrawal, rather than secreted behind the reception counter as done previously.
The representational seascapes which had chipped into abstracts for my prior visit’s amusement were replaced by discarded photographs of former guests sunning themselves on the Punta Negra. The glue-backed paper was already so shriveled from the constant heat and the chlorine vapors from the pool, that I could have reached out while passing upstairs and removed every trace of the other guests’ existence.
But instead I threw my arms about Aurélio and we galloped up to a double room where a sculpture of watermelon, goiaba and pineapple leaned against a bottle of white wine. There was a covert, sour smell about the table on which the sagging presentation had been placed.
My arrival could not assuage the heat. I could not resist the offering.
Aurélio left me when I was nearly drunk. I opened the drapes, looking out on the darkened lane and the boardwalk opposite the sand. The padlocked beach huts, barancas, were painted in their identifying colors, with the associated numbers, but I knew the ownership of each had been transferred since the previous winter. Property changed hands every season, now that the government had been reinvented.
Even so, guests still came for a tropical winter or two or three, only to change their minds about the intangibility of the place, but they were not missed as each new infusion of tourists arrived and fell in seasonal love with Natal.
At a certain point of time, the traveler has learned as much as is allowed by the natives, and one either explored a new land, or one returned to Natal with that feeling of incompletion reserved for belated homecoming.
Here is your second or third or fourth home, traveler, the room and the sculpture of rotting fruit seemed to chide, and it has not waited for your condemnation.
Sit quietly, traveler, and visions of your past innocence of this place will test your definition of love if not your sanity.
The desk mirror had been replaced with a cloth hanging of leering, triangulated dancers. I was halfway across the room to study the weaving when a compelling light startled me from behind. A new mirror - narrow, unnecessary and of no use - was stuck at the back of the open closet door.
I smiled at myself, but the reflected figure resisted. I closed the door before lying down so that I would not be tempted by my reluctant image.
The phone rang several times over the next half hour, but I slept easily between each short conversation with Aurélio or his replacement for the night shift.
At midnight, someone tried to break the door down.
I woke instantly, called out, “Quem é??” but no one answered.
A body was thrown into the door; the door warped and cracked.
“Quem é?” I repeated, following a belligerent silence, and opened the door with the chain still fastened.
Someone I didn’t recognize pushed his nose at me, glowering. It was the night clerk, taking over for Aurélio, no doubt.
He told me that the funeral was at seven; that the bell captain would wake me twenty minutes before the car was to arrive.
I told him that the soldiers who had taken over the hoteis during my previous visit had been more subtle in their invasion.
“Would you care to pay, Senhora?” the unpleasant man demanded.
I handed him three twenties, more than enough for my three day visit. The man beamed, spun away and danced back to the desk, mocking my return.
I stayed awake the remainder of the night, waiting for another knock upon the door, floating on the bed as I had never been able to float on the pool water downstairs.
One night during the last visit, Aurélio brought me laced punch and asked me to swim, to thrash about, to enjoy myself. I’d joined him in the pool, watching the soldiers milling about, sinking like a stone again and again as the soldiers interrogated Aurélio, daring, foolish Aurélio, at poolside.
I sank into my bed, remembering our casual friendship transformed by the only rebellion available to us.
The funeral was held in the city, miles from the beach, under the canopy of the slow break of tropical morning. We all received a Bible, and the nuns from the convent hooked arms with Aurélio and I for an hour or so.
The dictator’s chief of operations was at the funeral, as expected, even from a tourist. He was even more handsome than in his pictures, I confided in the nuns. Wait until you meet the big man’s nephew, they promised.
Back at the hotel, after several cocktails with the ruling class, Aurélio walked straight into the pool, taking me and the nuns with him.
I was fished out, a vigil set up around my bed.
The nuns ran up and down the stairs, up and down. Their stiff shoes tapped in cautious unison on the uncarpeted stairs. I heard the bell captain’s holster unsnapped only once. Then the hallway and the stairwells swept out the sisters, accommodating the more demure ghosts, sound swelling in low groans at oceanside, solid fists raised to knock in lieu of permission to enter.
Someone left the door of the closet open on the third morning, pinning my form upright, and I saw my body floating between the heavy arms of the brutal holy sisters.
Aurélio had helped me, just once, into a taxi, for the previous visit’s final evening. Squinting at the rising storm, shaking his head at its garbled voice, his physique was enveloping as the love of the nuns could not hope for. His warning tone was deeper than a sigh, a formal caress. My fourth visit had been ending, garbled also into foreboding.
“Someday,” Aurélio had told me, “all this will be gone. Always the same, but gone, you understand? We wait for you, regardless.”
The third afternoon of my last, this fifth visit, the nephew of the new dictator’s operations chief arrived and rang my room, asking me to join him in the bar for an afterdinner drink. The nuns had recommended his handsome face; the funeral had cautioned us against despair and isolation.
That was it for me. I rose refreshed, knowing I would never hear the poltergeists upstairs again.
We became intoxicated, and joined in an improvised dance for three with another foreign guest, triangulated in shadows upon the wall, blocking out shreds of tourists who had moved on in their travels. As I spun, I realized that some of the shredding must have occurred when they shot Aurélio.
The handsome nephew grinned as if he was just off the boat, and the tourist gasped with the restless choking of the homebody anxious to be rid of the guests.
Their eyes, even so, were wary of me, even before I collapsed.
You see how they distort things.
© 2000 Pacific Coast Journal/Tamara Jane