Thursday, August 25, 2005

Moonlight in Manaus


Our American Airlines 767 had stopped en route from Santiago to Miami to make a scheduled stopover in Manaus on the Amazon River. We deplaned, went through customs, and stood quietly as uniformed guards opened up our bags and strew our intimate effects over the bare wooden tables in the open-air "Aduana."

I loved it. It was rough, and it smelled of mud and diesel. Around us, impossibly green palm trees rustled as parrots landed and monkeys screamed down at us for introducing our pale skins into their midst.

The heavy-set customs agent with three stars on his olive drabs handed my suitcase to his assistant, a thin young man with no stars, but an AK-47. Although I had five pairs of gold lame slacks and pair after pair of high-heeled pumps, they seemed relatively uninterested in the contents of my bags. They were looking for something else. I was glad about that. But, it gave me a chance to reflect upon the fact that I had begun to dress like a 1940s film noir movie actress after spending time in Paraguay.

The warm air felt like primordial ooze.

There were tepid puddles of muddy water in the road, strange accumulations of water in buckets and in the lids of cans that were scattered around the periphery of the open-air customs area. In the distance, I could see the windows of the control tower. They mirrored the sky, which looked all too much like the face of Zeus swooping down to pluck up Ganymede.

Mirrors everywhere but the images did not correspond to what one would expect to see. I moved my hand to the left, but the image in the mirror remained motionless. The mirror instigated some sort of unrepresentable presence that provoked a effect that approximated delirious joy.

One had to be careful of mosquitoes here. Dengue fever was everywhere.

And yet, I was inclined to believe what I saw in the mirror. A spider monkey hopped up on the edge of a galvanized trough. It perched on the edge. I could see the reflection in the water, but it was not of a spider monkey. It was the head of a woman, the face blurred, the head shaved, a number tattooed on her bald pate. Nervously, I looked into the hatbox I carried containing my cabaret act headgear.

My father would be horrified to learn I had tried my hand at being a lounge singer in Asuncion, Paraguay. I was Carmen Miranda on acid, a critic had once said. I looked back at the spider monkey and the water mirror at its feet. The image had changed slightly. The woman now had a feathery boa around her neck.

"Disculpeme, senor, Es permitido fumar?," I asked.

The customs agent's assistant reached for his AK-47 as I started groping in my handbag for a pack of Salems.

"That's okay -- I'm trying to quit." Not worth it, I thought. My head was beginning to hurt. The truth was, I was tired, suffering a little from sleep deprivation, and more than a little punchy from the night before. A guy who said he wanted to place a big order with my company -- 2 containers of titanium dioxide pigment for his paint factories in Ecuador, and -- more importantly -- who would fill out the Ambassador's questionnaire -- tried to rough me up after dinner.

He couldn't handle the cognitive disjunction between me as sales rep and me as diva. It was a moonlit night -- one of those nights where thick, glowing clouds flit across the sky, passing in front of the pearl-white full moon. We were in a dark corridor near the back alley (error #1) and I was talking to him about the "travestis" I had read about (error #2). They were beautiful, I said. They were real drag queens, I explained, and I adored their fashion sense (error #3).
He shoved me up against the wall and tried to punch me in the face.

He almost got away with it, too. After all, we were in a country that distrusted women traveling alone, and I was afraid to make waves. I blamed myself for it anyway. I probably deserved it. Still, the red marks were turning to bruises, the other scuffs and rubs were fading. Did I mention he was an American, too?

Santiago -- Manaus -- Miami

Strange connections, strange delay. The air smelled like life squeezed from a green, slimy tube. The fact was, truth had become some sort of behavior, not perceived fact, or a confirmable sequence of events. The airplane was not small, but I was far away. I was looking at myself reflected in the dark RayBans of the customs agent. I was the subject of my own narrative in this strange stopover land, and I didn't know quite what persona to invent.

In the mirror of his eyes, my bruises spilled over into the air around me, my confusion spiked up around me like pipecleaner pompoms. I was thin, very thin. Sadness had no quarter here.

I heard the roar of jet engines, I looked up, and the American Airlines 767 was taxiing down the runway. Without me. I looked at the customs agent. His three stars glinted in the thick, surreal light.

"Don't worry. It happens all the time. You must pay a fine for missing the plane, though. You will stay in our hotel." He seemed cheerful. I felt resigned to my fate, and hence somewhat indifferent.

I watched the enormous silver bird make a turn and begin to head toward me. The nose was huge. The distance between the passengers and me was vast. I was on the wrong side of the skin. How would I kill time until the next opportunity to fly out? When would that be? One week? Two weeks? I was headed back home, but fate was conspiring to make me run through a few levels of purgatory before allowing me to rejoin my life's guide, whom I had so coldly rebuffed six months before. Dad didn't deserve to lose his assistant to the "infierno verde" of Paraguay.

"Do you have entertainment at your hotel?" I asked. "I sing and do a cabaret act..."
I would need a few days to heal, though. The bruises were deep. Makeup would only partially mask them.

I saw the customs agent look toward his assistant, his harsh expression turning soft, doglike, devoted.

"It doesn't matter -- I could start tonight," I said. I wondered if I had brought in enough aspirin or Alleve. The aesthetic issues of bruises? Costuming could remedy that. Beside, I expected more bruises would come shortly as long as I stayed in the shadows and away from the place I needed to be.

The mirror hanging on the far wall of the customs office glinted as the chrome bumper of a car passed in front of the open-air structure. I looked up and saw myself reflected there; white shirt, khaki pants, gold watch, hair pulled up in a bun. My face, however, was a shapeless blur.

By then, my eyes had already begun fill with tears.