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Laughing and Turning Away by Patrick Holloway

Patrick Holloway is an Irish writer living and teaching in Brazil. His stories and poems have been published in the U.S, Australia, the U.K, Ireland, and Brazil. He published a bilingual book of poetry in 2016. He one day hopes to have the determination to write a novel. 

2nd place, 2017 Raymond Carver Contest

The first time I had a gun pointed at me I was 14 and I ran home crying, and my brother laughed at me, calling me burra, saying I’d better get used to it. I didn’t know if he meant getting used to seeing guns or getting used to being stupid. The second time I was 18 and I focused on the man’s nose, its widening nostrils, how they opened and closed like umbrellas. He told me I had sorte, that on another day he would have done much more than just take my phone, wallet, watch, the cross I wore around my neck that grandmother had given me to keep me safe. He would have done much more, he said, because after all, I was gostosa, and he slapped my ass and laughed as he walked away.  

He walked away. There was no urgency in his step. He wore Havaianas. I did not move. I tried to focus on how his right foot flicked out as it hit the pavement, how his long arms swung by his sides, how his legs, in Rip-Curl shorts, seemed to be hairless. Even now, when I hear the heels of feet slapping against flip-flops I remember his flat nose, how he bit at his bottom lip.  

That time I did not run home crying and I did not tell my brother anything, nor my parents, and when they asked where my phone and wallet were I told them I had forgotten to lock the car at university. At lunch on Sunday grandmother noticed the absence of a cross around my neck but said nothing. She frowned slightly at her plate and blessed herself. 

So when my father called me telling me I should come home, I should look at flights, that I need to speak to the exchange programme and tell them that it was urgente, that maybe I would have to stop my studies for one semester, I was not surprised. There was no sudden intake of breath, or tears running from my eyes, no breathlessness at all. I hung up the phone, sat on my dorm-bed and imagined my brother’s face, his pinched little mouth letting words escape. His hands tightening their grip on his phone, on his wallet. And that wide nose and that cocky, favella laugh, and the sound of a thousand people clapping in unison, the very air being twisted around metal.  

“Is everything okay?” 

My roommate, Sarah—who had once asked me to teach her Spanish, who was amazed that I wore Victoria’s Secret and had a Michael Kors bag, and who open-mouthed shook her head and said, so you guys have Netflix, too?—looked at me with stolen tears. Tears I could not produce. She walked to my bunk and sat next to me and placed her hand on my thigh. Nails the colour of teal. I could not answer her, not in her tongue, instead I thought of the flight path, Wilmington to New York, New York to São Paulo, São Paulo to Porto Alegre. I thought of the hours that awaited me like tops of hills, each hour a hidden land that I could not see. 

My brother and I used to go to the street-fair on Saturday mornings. The closed-off street stretched all along Redenção park and we’d walk the length of it, picking up old candlesticks to admire before putting them back down, buying fresh pineapple and sweet popcorn. I’d look at the women and how they clung to their men. How when the men tugged a little, they’d follow, without hesitation. I’d watch couples kiss in the park, how one tongue pushed against the other, fighting for space; how teeth just seemed to get in the way. The men’s hands always squeezed at something, the chunkiest piece of flesh. I wanted to feel the back of a woman’s hand, how it rubbed a cheek downwards, how the fingers pushed through hair and pulled it back slightly.  

I had asked my brother, years later, when he was nearly a man and I was experiencing the shame of bleeding for the first time, to never just grab at a woman, to maybe caress her cheek, or play with her hair, and he laughed at me and called me burra. It doesn’t work like that, he said and laughed a little before turning his back on me and walking away. That is all men seem to do, laugh at women before turning away.  

Sarah touched at my cheek, curled my hair behind my ear.  

“Talk to me.” 

“I feel so vazia.” 

She curled her fingers in mine and lifted the palm of my hand to her lips. 

For seven months I had been teaching her Portuguese, in the quiet of our room, under the warmth of blankets. Her last words before sleep were always sonha comigo. She loved that it was dream with me in Portuguese, she said it was romantic, that it added extra intimacy between the dreamer and the dreamed. For seven months she had guided me around this land that was a distorted reality of the movies. She told me that we don’t say hello, how are you, nice to meet you, like I had been taught for as many years as I could remember, but instead, hey, what’s up, how’s it going. I had met her mother, a doctor, for lunch one day and felt awkward and sweaty when Sarah touched me even though her mother smiled and said we made a lovely couple. She had taught me how to download apps to get discount pizza, and a discount at Abercrombie and Fitch, and a free Uber ride.  

I was starving, out of nowhere I wanted my food, feijão and rice and orange slices, and ripe mango peeled and cut into moon shapes, or pinhão, the wooden taste peeled and slipped away, and then something sweet, condensed milk boiled until sticky with chocolate powder. I wanted to eat away my memories. To suck at chimarrão, its green, dried yerba.  

“I’m starving.” 

“I’ll get us something, stay here, I’ll be back in five.” 

She took my face in her hands. Her pale blue eyes like the waters of Fortaleza studied my face, shivering and flickering. She kissed my forehead and smiled before turning and leaving.  

For months I had been thinking about my return back. I had pictured it in December, arriving in that humidity that sits on the tongue like a layer of sand. Had imagined my mother’s soft, smiling face rushing towards me at the airport, and my father would wait behind with his emotions somewhere buried in his feet. And we would cook that night, every hob with a pot boiling, and the steam whistling from the pressure cooker with the feijão darkening, and we would drink wine and I would avoid the questions about American men with a remark like they are too busy pretending to be self-confident to have any confidence at all, and my father would laugh and slap at the table and say, isso aí, nothing like a gaúcho.  

And later, as my brother and father would sit watching TV, I would ask my mother, as we rinsed the dishes, why it was always us to set the table, why we had to wake earlier to make sure breakfast was waiting for them. I would ask her why we close our eyes to their wanderings, why we are the ones who go to the supermarket and iron creases away from a shirt left on the ground; why we bite at our cheeks and swallow our words. And she would look at me, those greying eyes studying the newness in my face, she would maybe smile a little, but she would not answer, that much I knew. And I would want to tell her about Sarah, how she tickled the inside of my arm and sat with me when I woke during the night, madrugada, with images of a hundred men smothering me with rough hands. I would want to say, I need you on my side, I can’t face them alone. I would go to sleep that night with my arms wrapped around myself and I would cry. 

I had been preparing myself for that. Preparing myself for the failure of not telling them about Sarah, preparing to force myself to forget, to delete my Facebook with an excuse that it takes up too much time, to change my email address and erase my photos, one by one, to learn to like the touch of a man. 

And now the only man I had ever loved had gone and got himself shot. His utter self-worth as concrete, facing the eye of the gun; I imagine him thinking: I’m Rodrigo Monteiro, I am made for greater things than a bullet. Or he simply would not allow something that was so rightfully his be taken from him, no matter the value. He was not used to being interrupted at dinner, or called upon from study to answer the front door. He had never been asked to take notes in a meeting because he had the prettiest handwriting. Had never been shouted at from a motorbike or whistled at whilst walking the dog. Had never been grabbed at a bar and been turned round violently so a person could get a better look at him. Had never had to defend his choices daily, or smile and bite at his cheeks when a man looked down at him and said it was ambitious to want to study abroad.  

Sarah opened the door with a large pizza and a two litre bottle of Coca-Cola under her arm. She looked like something from a poster. I imagined a little slogan at her feet: Because sometimes it’s good not to cook! She put them down on the desk and took glasses from a shelf that should store books. The kitchen to the halls was upstairs but we rarely used it. She took a bottle of Bacardi rum from the wardrobe. We were too young to buy alcohol. It wasn’t even allowed in the halls, even if you were twenty-one, but my ID said 01/12/1987. Which should read the first of December 1987, but instead read the 12th of January 1987. So I was illegally legal to buy alcohol. And behind our hanging clothes and piles of shoes were bottles of wine, rum, vodka and tequila.  

“Should I go up and get some ice?” She tried to smile but failed.  

“No need.” 

I could feel the weight of her body on the bed next to mine. Our hips almost touching. The tiniest of space between us, the light green of the sheets could as well have been an ocean. As I took the first bite of the pepperoni pizza I knew that I would vomit. Puke, that was the word I had been told to use. I got up and walked towards the door and she asked if I was okay so I turned, smiled, and laughed a little as if to tell her not to worry and went to the communal female bathrooms and puked until I felt weak.  

Three days later I was back among my people, my language. I had missed the funeral, which had been the day after his shooting. I had pleaded with my parents to wait but my father dismissed me telling me that it would be crazy, that it would be disrespectful to Rodrigo to leave him sweltering. I cried to my mother. I needed to see him. To know that it was really him that had been stolen from the life I had temporarily left behind. I tried not to feel guilty for there was nothing to be guilty about, but at night I still dream that every touch of Sarah brings him one step closer to the bullet.  

I had wanted to go back to Wilmington, to run away again, but my father told me my place was, and is, here, with them. Especially at this time. I am finishing university with little interest and I scrub the pots in the evening so hard that sometimes the skin beneath my nails bleed. I never go into Rodrigo’s room or answer Sarah’s emails. They are both just distant, a step too far away.  

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