I still remember the word—mulher—and how it sounds when you say it. The soft uvular purr at the end says private, it says verily, verily, handle with care.
You hear the purr—halfway to a moan—in Rio, in Salvador, in Fortaleza. You hear traces of it in Belo Horizonte and Betim, the cities I orbited for two long years. The tongue rises up just so in the back of the throat and a thin sheath of vibrating air pushes out. That final lher, that purr. It says desire.
The purr stretches back in time from the Latin mulier to the conquering Portuguese, who overran the wide green continent of Brazil. The Portuguese brought God, who is dead now, and mulher, who is very much alive.
I remember how I looked at mulheres without looking at them. They walked by trailing stares and turned heads—a comet’s tail of lust and wonder and gratitude, and despair for the injustice of the world.
I never turned my own head, but I noticed them coming: my head down-tilted, my eyes up. I noticed them. Their legs descending from minishorts to Havaianas. Their breasts in relief against tight-fitting tops. Their eyes regarding me frankly, openly.
“Sing a hymn, Elder McLeod,” Passos said more than once.
“I’m supposed to walk around blind?” I said.
“If thine eye offend thee . . .”
Sometimes they teased us, they catcalled after us. This happened especially with Elder Miller—a tall blond who wore his hair in meticulous disarray.
“Ai, que gringos bonitos! Que gostosos!”
They knew we were Americans, knew we were missionaries. Our white shirts, our ties, and our sheepish, down-tilted faces betrayed us.
I remember how we passed a girl seething, “Ai, que tezão! Que tezão!” and how Elder Miller blushed and smiled.
“Was that for you?” I asked Miller. “What does that word even mean?”
He blushed again, smiled again, and I smiled too.
“It means boner,” he said.
“How’d you learn that?”
I remember how naked mulheres smiled out at us from corner newsstands, from calling cards in phone booths, from roadside billboards.
“You’ve got to learn how to look without focusing,” Elder Passos told me. He wasn’t my trainer, but he acted like he was. “You’ve got to learn how to look without looking, really.”
Indeed, Passos said, looking down was no guarantee. I might chance to see a discarded magazine, or parts of one, the explicit pages rain-plastered to the sidewalk. Looking up was no guarantee either. I’d get an eyeful of billboard-sized breasts if I wasn’t careful. “That’d be, what,” Passos said, “size quintuple triple D?”
He laughed and I laughed and then his face went suddenly grave. “All you can do is be careful, Elder. And repent.”
I remember how the color changed in Passos’s face when a fully naked mulher came to the door. It was a door like the dozens of others we’d knocked that day. It was a faded pastel blue and made of cheap, thin metal, and all at once it opened to a mulher wearing nothing but her nakedness. She wore it well. I looked her up and down—quickly. Then I studied the door frame above her head and felt the blood going to my face, and elsewhere.
“Ma’am,” Elder Passos said. He stopped and turned away.
“Ma’am,” I said, “we’re missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have a message for you. Would you like to hear it?”
“What kind of message?” she said.
“A message of hope,” I said.
“How long is your message?”
“Not too long. It depends.”
The mulher shifted her weight from one foot to the other and I looked down from the door frame and saw her breasts sway and settle. I looked back to the door frame. It was still a faded pastel blue.
“I’m not a very religious person,” she said, “but you can come in if you want. You boys look thirsty. Do you want some water?”
“No,” Elder Passos said. Pleaded, really. He started away. I backed away too, smiling shyly into the mulher’s face, letting my eyes rest briefly where they would, and then turning and following after Passos. I caught up with him a few steps later. I touched his shoulder and he turned and I saw the color in his face, how it burned at his cheeks and his nose. He looked frostbit.
Elder Passos stared past me for a minute, then his eyes saw mine. We shared a long, spontaneous, conspiratorial smile.
“Shall we sing a hymn?” I said.
“Several,” he said.
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