Part 2 of 4 from a summer short fiction collection as seen in The Repercussions Issue
Getting to the artists’ residency, a beachfront compound on an island with live peacocks, is an adventure during off-season. There’s no ferry, only the lancha: a small speedboat that departs from the main market, which is rumored to have been a holding area for slaves. Neither the crew nor the passengers speak English, and your Português is really just French and Spanish phrases with some nasally Shhs and Xs thrown in.
At the dock—a riot of white stucco, red tiles, green palms—no one notices you. You’re the same color as the islanders, though your clothes are less bright. Less tight. Less, well, less. None of the taxi-drivers know of any famous arts colony, but when you mention the Frenchman who runs a guesthouse a few doors down, the young men smirk, and you recall hearing that, after it was a girls’ school but before it hosted artists, the hacienda was a gay hotel.
Later, as peacocks strut through your studio, trailing iridescence, the islander come to give you and the other woman artist samba lessons throws up his hands, aghast at your stiff brown hips. He titters into fluttering fingers, clutches his heart, and you imagine men like him, sinewy with hours of capoeira and dance, kissing in the courtyard beneath boughs of frangipani and bougainvillea.
“No one on the island is gay,” a gay mainlander explains. “But I have no problem finding men to sleep with!” On Sundays, drinking 30-cent caipirinhas beneath a rented umbrella at the praia pública, you ponder this.
Yachts arrive from the mainland, spilling middle-aged, pot-bellied, office-white men onto the sand. Sporting mirrored sunglasses and banana hammocks, they march over cobblestones into town, past tile murals of Portuguese conquests and empty, ornate mini-mansions that resemble petit fours. And return with islanders—stunning gold-brown girls with gold-brown curls and sea-colored eyes. At sunset, the surf teems with fifteen/sixteen/seventeen-year-old girls returning.
You’re disgusted and horny the entire month.
Sunbathing on the private pier, you try to tune out the other woman, an artist ten years your senior who prattles on about her fancy L.A. life. She clutches you, hissing: “Look!” And there, next to the compound gate, a man crouches in the bushes, hand pumping away. While you’re trying to decide if you’re scared (the security guard, cook, housekeeper, gardener and residency director are within shouting distance, after all), a young islander wanders by, scanning the beach. He raises a hand to greet you—“Tudo bem?”—then dives behind another bush.
“Well, that was polite!” You’re laughing in spite of yourself, but the artist huffs, “Does he think we don’t see him?”
It happens every time you go out together. But when you’re alone, floating in the bathwater-warm bay, you never allow yourself to check the bushes. Because not looking equals not knowing. And because you suspect they haven’t come for your plump brown body, only her bony white one—which is disturbing for what it suggests about race and desirability and power—especially as she is kicking your ass at samba.