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Risk by Jamie Cattanach | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

June 20, 2016      

Risk by Jamie Cattanach

The people around me are all things I am not: tall and beautiful and brown, the women dressed like flecks of tinsel. As I trail behind the man who brought me here, they smile warmly at me after he greets them each by name, kissing my cheeks and chattering at me in quick Portuguese like we’re old friends. I shrug an “olá” and smile in a way I hope is endearing, embarrassed at my typical American monolingism. I watch their faces falter a second, quickly right themselves. I am fifteen years younger than anybody.
      It’s a high society Portuguese birthday party, and the birthday boy, our host, grins and kisses his partner openly. He’s wearing white linen pants and a floral shirt with a sweater tied casually-but-just-so around his neck, and he welcomes my short, pale, anomalous self with grace and generosity.
      I met my date, Felipe, only 36 hours ago. He brings me a gin and tonic in a giant goblet like the ones planted in the hands of the men around us, who wear pastel pink shorts and deeply cut V-neck tees. Sliced strawberries and ice punctuate the clear liquid invitingly. Felipe points people out to me, congregated in various flocks across the sunstrewn deck: the most highly-paid and sought-after attorney in Lisbon; a Dutch ex-supermodel whose skin-tight dress features a sheer back panel, showing off her still-perfect everything; a shoe designer, to whom Felipe prompts me to tell the name of my hometown, and who then responds in perfect English, ah, yes, I have a showroom near there. Maybe you have seen my work.
      Seen, not purchased. I smile quietly, my new go-to response. Resigning myself to how underdressed and outclassed I am, I’ve taken off the flip-flops I wore.
      We gather to watch the sunset from the dunes, and then there’s an enormous catered meal. Felipe prowls the buffet before me, spooning far too many things onto my plate and explaining what they are in stretches of staccato English between the Portuguese he exchanges with everyone else. Afterwards, the dance floor grooves to unlikely American hits – “Girls on Film,” “Baby Got Back.” Everyone knows all the lyrics.
      Felipe’s an anomaly himself, standing six foot five and a head over anyone around us. His height throws my five-foot-three into even starker relief, and I hang behind him as has he navigates through the throngs of white-toothed, well-heeled socialites, some strange, young foreign bauble he’s acquired. He keeps turning back to me between alien niceties, tall and apologetic: “Let’s just check –” another smile, another faire of the bise, another handshake – “Let’s just… let’s just check the beach.”
      Check the beach. As if it might not be there.
      For me, it never had been.

I didn’t know what it was like to arrive alone in a foreign country.
      Sleeping on the plane was impossible. As soon as I’d shut my eyes, the flight attendants were turning up the lights, announcing coffee and juice. Useless. A little girl on the other side of the aisle had seen the city approaching through the clouds: “So colorful, I love it!” But only cloud cover on my side for a long time, almost until the ground before brown and orange peeked through the swirl signifying that we had successfully crossed an ocean.
      I got off the airplane and none of the signs were in English. Of course they weren’t. I kept thinking about the ocean – we’d been travelling so fast, and still it took ten hours to cross.
      Of course, the little things: my checked bag came out on the wrong carousel, and I was sure it had been lost. The bottle of water I purchased required I use the chip card I’d gotten specifically for the trip, and the cashier glared at me as I fumbled with the machine. My taxi ride cost 20 euros more than I was told it should, and when we arrived where the hostel was supposed to be, I saw nothing: no sign, nothing I recognized as a tenement. My taxi driver dutifully got out and showed me the entrance, which seemed small and unlikely, and when I couldn’t understand how to work the elevator, I lugged myself, 50-pound suitcase and all, up the five flights of stairs to the check-in desk.
      I was staying in a private room and they told me it wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon, so I curled myself into the common room with my laptop, listening to the sounds of the joyful city outside and crying. I’d never felt so radically alone: the only thing connecting me to anyone or anything I knew was a decidedly shoddy WiFi connection, and since it was 4:30 a.m. at home, no one was awake anyway.
      The little things. The foreign electrical outlets looked unfriendly and wrong. A brand-new language meant my ears were under siege. I was exhausted and enthralled, trying to learn it like an infant. I was forced to listen.
      In the afternoon the girl came to me, touched my shoulder, brought me to my room. The front door was printed with the name, Cesariny, the father of Portuguese surrealism. Its plain white walls were scrawled all over with his poetry in black, contrasted only by the room’s bright pink features – a duvet, an outdated television set. The effect was so dizzying that the innkeeper mentioned I could move rooms later if I chose, since I’d be staying for so long.
      Most of the words painted boldly on the wall were completely foreign, but as it turns out, nausea is an exact cognate. By some happenstance, when I woke up most days, that’s where my eyes were pointed.

Two days before the party, I’d wandered into his café. It’d been recommended in the Disquiet program guide, and although it had been two minutes’ walk from my hostel the whole time, I’d waited until just a few days before we left.
      Felipe, who I later learned owned the place, waited on me. I remember mentioning, maybe blunderingly, his English – how good it was, better than anyone else’s I’d encountered so far. He spoke easy French at the table in front of mine, populated by two older Parisian women with blonde hair slowly going white.
      He was tall. He was impossibly tall in a place where I’d noticed that all the doors and ceilings were finally my size. I watched him stoop his way into and out of the kitchen.
      A few minutes after I tucked into my salad, Felipe put his hand on the book I’d tossed to the corner of the table – a volume of Pessoa’s poems – before he even asked me if he could see what I was reading. I stumbled through an assent, then asked what I shouldn’t miss in Lisbon. He spoke of sunsets and rooftops, and a few minutes later we were making plans to have a drink.
      I said yes. I returned, hemming and hawing outside of the café. I’d forgotten if he’d said 6 or 6:30, so I picked 6:15, not wanting to look too rude or too eager either. We went to a beautiful rooftop bar. He bought me two glasses of white wine and we watched the sun set over the famous Ponte 25 de Abril. I’d been in Lisbon more than a week, but both times we clinked glasses his toast was: welcome.
      We excused ourselves from each other, but later that night decided to reconvene. I’d drunk wine almost all day, and so wandered tipsily to a park at midnight, watching other young travelers run and jump and play in a water fountain, watching the city lights go soft. He sidled up next to me and greeted me without touching me, and I pretended not to see him approach. We wound our way to yet another bar. That night in bed, I wrote a poem about how long his femurs were.

I’ve tried to write this story so many times, but I’ve always stopped short, thinking, you’re just gushing, just trying to get someone to believe this happened. Thinking: what is this, other than the thing in my life that maybe I’ll remember best? What does it say?
      Something, maybe, about risk-taking. Something about traveling alone.
      Something about desire and objectification and how it’s dangerous and insidious and thrilling, that I’d wanted it – to be wanted – in vain so badly, in my youth, that I used to cry (and get off) just imagining that someone, someday, would want to kiss me.
      Something about how, five years later and seventy pounds down, it’s become so mundane.
      As many times as I’ve written this, I’ve always left out the fact that my fling with Felipe wasn’t the only affair I had on the two-week trip.
      Jeff was traveling with a group of MFA students from the San Jose State program. He wrote short fiction about men on trains pouring their whiskeys out the window – or trying, but finding the window closed, and spilling all over themselves instead.
      We exchanged glances the whole program, and finally snuck embraces toward the end, just a day or so before I met Felipe. We’d gone on a day trip to Cascais and when I nervously took my clothes off at the beach, I felt him look at me – despite the thinner, more beautiful women I knew I was surrounded by. He’d been reticent to break away from his cohort, even when I expressly invited him to do so, but it finally got the best of him. After some event, he stalled, letting the rest of his group walk ahead to their AirBnB, and followed me into the lobby of my hostel before pushing me into the alcove in front of the elevator.
      He came up to my room but we didn’t have sex. Lying in bed in the few quiet minutes before he wandered back to his apartment, I asked him what he’d thought when he first saw me, a lurid question. I wanted those details. That’s the eroticism. The wanting.
      “Damn,” he said. That’s what he’d thought. He remembered what I’d been wearing.
      Everything’s concentric circles. After he and I happened, Felipe came into the picture. And when Felipe and I were walking to the bar where we had our first drink, we ran into Jeff and one of his friends just on the way down from the same place. A couple of years later, I’d run into Jeff again at AWP while trying my hand at grad school. He’d tell me I looked well.
      But meanwhile, I spent the nights in my hostel bed alone, not for the first time wanted by more men than I had time for, pulled in two directions.
      It’s hard to understand and harder to explain, living in a once-fat body that now passes for thin – the hot girl twilight zone. In college, when I lost the weight, I watched the men who’d long ignored me start to pursue me, one by one. I still feel gigantic, disgusting, unlovable – and I know I must not really be anything special, but I’ve at least come to learn that more men than not want to fuck me. Maybe that’s just the default experience of being a person in a “normal” female body with a fairly symmetrical face, but it’s so new – and in juxtaposition to my previous position, so extreme – that by turns I feel I must be an exceptional beauty or completely delusional, and I can’t ever get a grip on where I actually stand. I can’t know, but strongly suspect that the experience I’m writing about now would not have been open to me had I still been heavy – but I’m not sure that means anything about my level of beauty.
      But I saw my face in the mirror at the party behind the Dutch supermodel whose ass I couldn’t help but staring at all night, and there it was, undeniable even in her shadow: Oh. I was beautiful, too. Maybe not as beautiful as her and maybe not in the same way, but beautiful nonetheless.

Two days after our rooftop wineglass clinking, young and still stupid and apparently beautiful enough to make such foolish decisions, I swung my leg over the backseat of his motorcycle. I had sent my ex-boyfriend a text message moments before: I hope I don’t die. Here’s his full name, in case.
      As if it would help. I had no idea where we were going. I was four-thousand miles and five hours’ daylight away from anyone I properly knew or loved.
      His business partner was standing in the doorway when I arrived, about ten minutes late, having fussed with my makeup in the mirror for longer than I’d intended. His name was Louis. He had a heavy-looking gold ring in the shape of a skull on his middle finger. He complimented my tattoos.
      Felipe shoved the helmet down onto my head, making of me a sudden mismatched monster: a bulbous fly-eyed head over a flouncy gauze dress. He explained briefly the mechanics of riding behind him on the motorcycle: your feet go here; don’t move them. Hold on to me as if we are one body.
      Louis leaned out of the open doorway, grinning. I knew I looked ridiculous. He said: “Slowly, Felipe.”
      I did not want him to go slowly. And he didn’t.

The third and final time, the night before I left the country, he kept using empty American fuck-dialogue. He called me baby, kept repeating that he was fucking my pussy. I told him to talk to me as if I were a Portuguese woman, to tell me what he’d tell her.
      The Portuguese slang for pussy is cona, and nestled as it was amongst his other words it reminded me of conejo, and so I laid there, fucked, thinking of rabbits, of soft and white and fuzz. I stopped him and got on top, slipping myself over him. His eyes went too wide. “Yes,” he said, “fuck me,” he said, in English. Eyes too wide, looking crazy, all the emphasis on “me.” Fuck me. He smelled of cigarettes and sunscreen.

I still didn’t believe he wanted me when he brought me to his apartment for the first time.
      I walked into an open room with beautiful hardwood floors. There was a framed Warhol print on the wall, a clutch of succulents in the sun beside the French doors to the balcony. A lot of intentionally empty space. He walked to the record player and put on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” then “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
      I couldn’t believe he existed. Put together, the owner of a café as I’d always dreamed of becoming one day, with sophisticated taste in film and literature that we connected over despite the language barrier: this man I didn’t even know I’d dreamed up had always existed, an ocean away and twenty years ahead of me.
      Voices of my countrymen, voices I had grown up with across the ocean, filled up the space of his living room. He leaned over the balcony, all angles like he is, smoking a cigarette. I stood, I paced, I held my hair off my neck with my arms awkwardly and he made fun of me for it. I didn’t know what I was doing there or what he wanted – or I knew but couldn’t believe. He smiled, finished his cigarette and sat beside me; he reached out and touched my face chastely. He put his hand over mine to dwarf it – his big, long hands – and then asked me to embrace him. Those were his words. He asked me.
      We fell into a kiss, leaning weirdly over the empty space between us, still not close. We stopped and smiled at each other. We were strangers.

We were going so fast. Too fast: a sudden breathlessness as my visor clanked down over my face under the tremendous force of the wind rushing past. Everything went silenter. I leaned closer to him.
      He laid the bike down to make a turn and the I felt the breath knocked out of me, heard myself unconsciously mouthing oh my god. He laughed. I knew he was showing off, and he knew I knew, but neither of us knew each other well enough to say so.
      I only clung. We survived to his house and I dismounted and yanked the helmet off my head, shaking; only an hour later I was on my back, clinging to him again. His body was sinewy and small but stable under my hands. Everything was rush.
      When he drove us back over his landmark bridge that night after the party, after we’d been drinking, after he’d slipped inside me on the beach and asked me to come to his bed, the woman at the toll booth on the far side raised her eyebrows at me.
      I raised mine back. He had warned me that it would be different at night, but there was no way I could have expected it. The moon was a day shy of full, burning over a city I had spent two weeks beginning to love, and I stared at it over my right shoulder, trying to embed the moment in my memory: remember this remember this remember this. I clutched him, my fingers creeping along the crevice of his solar plexus, holding down the strap of his bag so it would not whip. Such small motions inside of all of that immense, nauseating, eighty-kilometers-per-hour rush.
      I was so scared and adrenaline-high I thought I might actually vomit. I knew if I did, it would be my last action. The wind lifted my worthless dress and it flagged behind us, exposing my knees, thighs. I yelled it to him over the rumble of the engine as we sat at a stop light, he with his big feet down, I with mine firmly tucked up on the rests as instructed: “If we fall, I’ll have no skin left.”
      “Yes.” The helmet turned halfway back toward me, clanking against mine. “That is why we do not fall.”

We laid in the sun the whole day under a straw cabana, I moving my chair at intervals to follow the shadow it cast, trying to keep my Scottish skin from burning. He laid his brown body out flat. I felt the physical space of my body, awkward and bloated, my hair greasy, wearing the same dress from the previous night. Many of the European women around me wore skimpy bottoms and were often topless, exposing breasts of unlikely levels of perfection. The woman at the next cabana, his best friend’s wife, noticed me, remembered me from the party the night before, said hello. Felipe wandered around the beach making his own hellos, and I laid on my chair, writing what would become this.
      When we weren’t silent, we negotiated language. He used entrances when he meant “appetizers;” when I said I “did a 180,” I had to stand and spin to illustrate the metaphor. Every now and again he’d stalk off, telling me he was “going to the toilet,” a phrase whose too-frankness was lost in translation.
      I was leaving the next morning. He asked me if I was ready, and looking out over the ocean, I answered honestly: “yes and no.” In some ways, I said, I felt as if I’d just started really seeing Lisbon for what it was.
      “Well, it’s your first time overseas,” he said. “To see a whole new country, a whole new culture… Everything is bigger now. Your world has doubled.”
      As the shadow and I moved around the spire of the cabana and the sun slowly set on us for the third time, we accumulated detritus: discarded shoes and motorcycle helmets and clothing; the empty glass from which I’d sipped iced coffee, there served with fresh orange slices; the tray on which the waiter had brought us sliced beets Felipe set swimming in olive oil and coarse salt. Cigarette butts.
      We wandered up to the restaurant to have a proper dinner. Felipe spoke to the waiter in Portuguese; ordering the shrimp dish I had fawned over without me knowing he’d done so until it showed up. After a whole two days together, we ate this meal largely in silence, like a couple on a date whose number was finally extraneous enough for the counting to have stopped. We left the table to watch my last Portuguese sunset.
      It seemed obvious that he couldn’t take me back to my hostel and leave me, so we decided he’d drop me there, I’d pack, and he’d come back with his car. To take me home, he said.

I asked to use his shower and the water filled up the stall, the probable consequence of his thick hair – one I was familiar with. The rubber ducky on the floor tiles set to floating, gradually. Everything in the room was glossy and angular, looked like it came directly out of a design magazine. There was only one towel.
      When I came out, he was rushing around, lighting candles, making amends. He told me he was “getting things ready.” There was a line of tea lights under the full-length mirror in the bedroom.
      I looked at myself, knowing we were about to have sex for the last time. My body looked fat and white, and parts of me had disobediently escaped into too much sunlight. I was burned in a complex and unflattering patchwork. I tried to take out my contacts and it hurt.
      I asked him for some clothes and he dug me out a T-shirt: it sported the National Geographic logo and the copy: Ignorance is boring. When I came to bed, I didn’t want to take it off. “I’m not pretty right now,” I told him.
      “It’s not about being pretty,” he said.
      “Yes,” I replied, “but it’s nice.”
      The next morning, we were rushing; I had a plane to catch, he was on his way to the gym. He begged me to eat something, insisted that I have “a piece of yogurt.”
      As I wandered back to his kitchen to wash my hands in his sink, I thought about making myself his wife: about marching weekly to the square to buy us fresh cherries at market and bringing them to that sink to wash; about being the one to hang his jeans on the line out the back window, as is the naked custom there.
      But his shower had set the rubber ducky to floating, and it kept its dumb expression as the water rose. And when I peeled my contacts from my eyes in the mirror, they resisted as if the sun and salt had melted them in.
      He was only a man. My plane was leaving in ten hours.

At the beach, he convinced me to put my overheated body into the water.
      It was deceptively cold. It felt freezing by comparison to my native Floridian waters, but he assured me it wasn’t so bad once you committed yourself.
      Squealing, I did. I could only do it once – we wandered back a second time, maybe even at my behest, but I couldn’t make my body do it. This first time, though, I laid back in the water and he scooped me up in arms almost as long as my legs, held me afloat in the wrong side of my ocean. I looked across it, toward home, then up at him.
      “Thank you,” I said.

When he slipped inside me on the beach, the party pulsing behind us, I thought, this is a bad idea.
      Even I, who’d gotten on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle after only a moment’s hesitation and a useless text message telling an American friend what I was doing. Even I, who’d had enough sangria and gin that the lights of the party went astral in the distance and the sounds of voices and song kaleidoscoped with the breaking waves strangely.
      But there we were. We’d crossed the bridge over which we’d watched our first sunset to dance before another. He tried to untie my bikini bottoms but I’d double-knotted them, so he pulled the fabric aside instead. I want you in my bed, he said as he thrust into me. I want you. Will you go with me?
      I said I would.

He put his hand on a book that was mine, but just; filled with the words of a writer I’d discovered, but just. I’d flown into Pessoa’s homeland – and enrolled in an event named after his work – without reading a word of it.
      It’s funny; the unprotected European beach sex with a stranger isn’t even the interesting part, really. Better: the next day when we wandered back, I in the same dress and greasy-haired and fatter than all the other women on the beach. Better: my stubbing my toe on the wooden path down to the water, the resultant blood blister that lasted back to America. Better when we found the same spot in the daylight and he said, Ah, look, part of the beach is missing. It is at home in bed. Maybe still.
      It was under our nails and in our hair. He laid me down in the sand and snuck himself into me and I clung to him, again. I was drunk but not drunk enough to forget it was a horrible idea.
      But I knew then that I’d wanted it to happen since I’d booked the flight, since I’d wondered over the map of it, the distance – all that water, all that space, the outline of a country I couldn’t yet even conceptualize. We were there, and it was July, and everything was real. I said yes.
      The world was getting bigger every second.

1 In Portugal, even straight men touch each other’s faces to show affection. Coming from the U.S., this – amongst other things, like the way the streets are made of the same cobbles they were a hundred years ago, and when one of the cobbles falls out, a man comes around with an antiquated-looking machine and puts it back in – made me fall deeply in love with Europe, even having seen only such a small part of it. There’s an authenticity that I suppose comes with having history in the hundreds of percentages longer than America’s, a lack of the anxiety-induced artifice that seems inevitable and fitting for our adolescent nation.

Headshot Original SizeAbout the author:

Jamie Cattanach (happily) dropped out of her creative writing MA program to return to her native Florida, where she writes full-time for a popular web publication. Her poetry has been featured in DMQ Review, Hinchas de Poesia, Sweet: A Literary Confection and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.

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