Once, in Brazil, I ended up eating dinner in a section of Salvador called Pelourinho, which my Lonely Planet said was the old slave auctioning and whipping site, but that was now filled with charming, overpriced tourist restaurants. I was with a Japanese girl I had met in Rio. She swore like a Yakuza member, but she read her guidebook diligently. I was alone as usual, and she allowed me to follow along as she took the right buses to the beach and showed up at the bank to change money during business hours. In exchange for my freeloading she occasionally demanded we must eat some of the “must eat” dishes in some of the “must eat” restaurants pictured on the shiny pages of her Japanese guidebook. Monika, a Canadian who was model gorgeous and fluent in her parent’s Portugal-style Portuguese, but had trouble walking on all the cobblestone in flip-flops, ate with us. Yoko deliberately ordered us dishes from Africa with okra and shrimp and peppers, and we sat outside in the warm night (where slaves used to be whipped) listening to drum beats in the distance and talking about how unforgiving the Brazilian bathing suits were.
I walked back to the hostel to take a shower. When I got back to my room from the bathroom, I heard police sirens outside. I leaned out the heavy, framed colonial window with a swimmer’s towel to my hair. An Israeli on the guy’s floor below me looked up. “You should come down here,” he said, gesturing from my floor to his with a lit cigarette.
So I came down without shoes to lean out the hallway window and try to see the police. He offered me a Marlboro from a box with a photo of a premature baby hooked up to machines on it. He had another box that illustrated impotence with a woman in a king-size bed looking away from a man with his head in his hands. A third box featured a photograph of black charred lungs. They must have been meant to deter kids and illiterate adults from smoking, but although I don’t normally smoke, I took and started to smoke a cigarette from the low birth weight baby box for the novelty of it.
It felt good. I told the Israeli that I sort of liked violence, which is the sort of asinine thing only someone who has never been the victim of violence or has never been forced to victimize others can say. What I meant was that I find memorable those times that are so confusing and intense that you are forced to be totally conscious of the present moment. So I followed up by saying, “I mean I don’t like it, but at the same time I like it. You know?” He agreed as we looked down the street and saw some riot police marching on the cobblestone. He told me his name, which was unpronounceable and hard to remember. I tried to say it a couple of times, but then gave up. I told him my name was Emily, and he said he knew that name from Beverly Hills, 90210. I forgave him for having seen that much 90210. He said, “Maybe, Emily, you would not like violence so much if you came from somewhere with more of it.” I agreed with him, and he explained how there were some fun times in the Israeli army, but mostly it was a waste of time.
I soon heard Monika stumbling up the steps in her flip-flops, a loud posse of youth hostel guests trailing behind her. Yoko’s favorite swear-word, makatsuku, floated up to us several times before they reached our floor. When Monika and Yoko did reach the second floor, they said they didn’t know what was going on outside with the police and they both raised their eyebrows with interest about the Israeli. I shook my head no, we were just two people sharing a conversation about violence and an entire pack of cigarettes decorated tastefully with a photo of an underweight baby.
Once they passed, the Israeli told me that after he got out of the army, he spent a year in Maryland selling massage devices called Mr. Tinglers from a cart in the mall, and that’s how he was able to save up enough money for this trip to South America. “Wait,” he said, and ran to his room. When he came back he was carrying the Mr. Tingler contraption, which was a little wooden knob with wires coming out of it. I laughed at the amount of space this must be taking up in his luggage, but he told me to stop laughing and turn around and close my eyes. So I did. As he let Mr. Tingler’s wires come down over my skull, he spun me around and kissed me.
Being hit on is about as common for me as being caught up in street violence, and it felt similarly thrilling and overwhelming. He pulled me into the hostel bathroom and we made out against the tiled wall. Every moment with him made me feel suddenly conscious and clear-headed. Then he pulled away from me for a moment. It hit me I was making out in a hostel bathroom with someone whose name I couldn’t pronounce who had seduced me with a Mr. Tingler. My breath smelled like Marlboros. I felt dumb, so I told him I should go back to my bunk, and he was cool about it.
When I went downstairs for breakfast in the morning, Mr. Tingler and I nodded to each other and smiled. His table was full of Israelis speaking Hebrew, and Monika and Yoko had saved a seat for me. The TV was turned to CNN, which was focused on violence somewhere. I could not tell where. The experts in their suits and hair-sprayed hair presented the conflict as if conflict was inevitable. They agreed it was happening now and could be prevented, but at the same time at the conclusion of the piece they smiled politely and signed off as if the violence was also occurring in a land so distant it might as well be the past. •