“The Unexpected Geographies of Desire” by Fábio Fernandes

“The Unexpected Geographies of Desire” by Fábio Fernandes

The blonde girl’s dead face mushroomed in my camera lens. The blood from her head pooled quickly in the floor of the bathroom, but there wasn’t anything I could do for her now. Nothing but shoot.

Shoot her beautiful, blood-smeared right cheek (the one that wasn’t glued to the tiles of the floor). Shoot her brains, gray matter spilling through her cracked skull making the top of her head look strangely like a cauliflower.

Even so, her hair, plastered to her ear and face, of a yellow tinted with smears of deep red, reminded me of tulips. She was so beautiful.

* * *

How can you predict the force of a legend?

In the mid-seventies, the Bathroom Blonde frightened the hell out of every grammar school kid all over Brazil. During the summer of 1974, hardly a day went by without some boy running scared from some toilet in some school yelling that he had just seen the Blonde in there. (It never happened to girls, as far as I can remember, don’t ask me why.)

The origins of that woman — that is, how did she end up in a boy’s school toilet in the first place? — were, as all urban legends go, full of mystery and paradox.

First: the woman wasn’t your average ghost or apparition. She was quite solid and fleshy. Nobody I knew had ever touched her, but all who had claimed to see her would tell you without a shadow of a doubt that she was everything but incorporeal.

They insisted, for example, that she always wore a red dress, except for the nude versions. Yes, there were versions in which the girl was entirely naked in the bathroom — and that one could have made me masturbate like crazy were I a little older. But I was barely eight years old then, and didn’t know what to do with my penis aside from pissing. (Fortunately not in my pants, for that’s exactly what I would have done if I had met her then. And crapped myself too.)

Second: she could even be a beautiful girl, if it wasn’t for the pallor on her face, and the cotton plugs in her nostrils. And the long, sharp nails, polished blood-red.

Third, and most important: she only appeared in public toilets. Never in your own bathroom — no matter how hard you wished it to happen.

Of course, as in every urban legend, there were plenty of contradictions. In spite of her concreteness, sometimes she was just a reflection in the mirror. Suddenly you were washing your hands or face in the basin, and then you looked up and — just like any B-movie — there she was, looking at you with angry eyes.

And sometimes she also bled from her nose. (Don’t ask me how she could do it with the cotton in her nostrils, but, anyway, she did it.)

Not to mention the razor.

Some people called her the Gillette Blonde, for two reasons; one of them was because of a famous Gillette razor blade TV ad featuring a stunning Scandinavian-type blonde. But the real reason was that the Bathroom Blonde carried a razor.

And everybody would tell you she knew how to use it — even though nobody could ever prove a single murder case related to her. A friend of mine once told me that the police was covering up the story so as not to frighten the populace.

I believed him. I was eight years old. Most children that age still believe in Santa Claus. So why not in the Blonde?

Come to think of it, maybe a better, fitter nickname for her should be the Toilet Blonde, but that always makes me think of toilet talk and bodily fluids, dirty stuff you used to see in public toilets — like when I lived in a squat in Amsterdam for a while in the 1990s. But I don’t want to talk about it.

As for me, even being a true believer, I never saw the Bathroom Blonde as a child.

* * *

One of the reasons I don’t want to talk about Amsterdam is the Finnish girl.

God, she was beautiful. Very thin, tall, blonde hair almost white, full, pouting lips that made me stare at her in awe as if she was a Scandinavian ice goddess from one of those sword-and-sorcery stories I used to read when I was younger. But, to my amazement, she was very real.

She was so real I eventually mustered up the courage to invite her to have some coffee with me one afternoon, and a beer the night after that, and then to smoke some pot in Vondelpark, near our squat.

That’s where we first kissed: in Vondelpark, among the trees and the disposable needles.

I was twenty-five and having the time of my life.

* * *

The first Sunday after that kiss, we visited the Van Gogh Museum. I wanted to try and take some pictures of the paintings. (The security people at the entrance wouldn’t even let me enter with the camera, but what did I know then?)

I went to the girls’ room early in the morning to wake her up; although a lot of people lived there in all the rooms of the derelict house, a free-thinking community of sorts, there was still a kind of modesty then, so girls used to occupy some of the rooms and boys others. I knocked.

She opened the door for me wearing just a sleeveless shirt and panties.

I felt myself harden almost at once. But I did my best to not make a move that could be misinterpreted; there were other girls in the room, and I wouldn’t dare to try to embrace her, to kiss her, much less to get into her panties. It definitely wouldn’t be considered a decent move on my part.

But she was so beautiful.

* * *

I had entered Europe through Amsterdam, because I happened to have two friends living in the Netherlands at the same time, and both offered their places for me to stay.

My flight landed at Schiphol on a Sunday afternoon. I would find out soon after that both of my friends were out of town and wouldn’t come back until at least Monday.

The year was 1990 and Tim Berners-Lee was just creating the Web, and I was to learn later that my paper correspondence to both had been delayed by a two-day strike in the Dutch postal service. I had intended to spend a few weeks in each friend’s home, maybe find a summer job washing dishes. I didn’t really know. It wasn’t as if I had really planned anything.

Fortunately, I had paid in advance for a week in a hostel. That was where I stayed. I wasn’t exactly worried; certainly one of my friends would come home and things would be settled well before the week – or my money – ended.

But it was summer in Europe. Accustomed to living in the Southern Hemisphere, I had completely forgotten this. After all, I had left Brazil in mid-winter.

By Wednesday, neither of them had returned and I began to worry.

Then I met the Finnish girl.

* * *

I was eating a cheeseburger at a Burger King, trying to enjoy the Double Whopper with Cheese (never did — something in the sauce didn’t go well with my stomach, I guess) because I needed to save as much as I could. I didn’t want to return to Brazil too soon.

Then she came in with a group of loud, cheerful friends. They sat on a row of tables near me, chatting in English, German, and Spanish.

I gave a good look at them. Shiny happy people having fun.

I, on the other hand, was utterly alone. It was the first time I traveled to another country, and I had no one to talk to. I was shy and afraid of talking with strangers, but the thought of remaining alone for the next one or two weeks scared me more.

Next thing I knew, I was approaching the group and presenting myself to them.
They accepted me easily, as if I had always been there; I was later to discover this happened easier with young people, because they were more open.

They came from all over the world. There was a guy from Jamaica, a girl from Yugoslavia, a couple of boys from Germany, another girl from Denmark. And she.

She had an easy laugh, as if she hadn’t an ounce of weight on her shoulders. Her shoulders were bare, and very pale. And her eyes were the purest blue I’d ever seen in my life. She was so beautiful.

I fell in love without even noticing it.

* * *

We never made love.

When the summer was over (and my money with it), it was time to get back to Brazil. I was devastated. She also seemed very sad the day before, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I didn’t get any summer job, and my pockets were empty.

And now I just can’t remember her name at all. It’s funny the way things happen. Funny and cruel.

* * *

When I got back home, nothing happened. For a quite reasonable amount of time I felt elated to have lived for a while in Europe. Most of my friends then couldn’t afford it; I already was making some money with photography then. Call it silly adolescent behavior, but I was glad I could have lived that time there. It was a beautiful experience.

* * *

In time, the memory of Amsterdam, its narrow canals and its small, stacked constructions so like dollhouses slowly receded in my mind, giving place more and more to the stark reality of São Paulo, its urban canyons, its gray, shabby buildings, and inhabitants likewise apparently devoid of any color — and seemingly of life as well, I used to think. For me, Amsterdam was red bricks with splashes of green and yellow from its parks. Not São Paulo. The streets of the Brazilian megalopolis were gray, red from spilt blood, black with soot of factories, and brown with dog shit. The only yellow in sight was the occasional puddle of vomit.

I missed the yellows of Amsterdam. I missed the rental Yellow Bikes we sometimes used to tour the countryside, the pungent flavor of Gouda cheese between two slices of Italian bread for breakfast, the permanent flower auction at Aalsmeer, and the incredibly big and vivid tulips I bought there now and then.

I missed the golden yellow hair of the beautiful Finnish girl.

* * *

A few months after I came back, I got a steady job for a weekly news-magazine that paid well and also gave me plenty of spare time to delve into my urban explorations.

These explorations were an obsession of sorts — in fact, an obsession whose beginnings can be traced to my three-month-stay in that Netherlands squat.

It began with a question: are there squats in São Paulo? The answer is yes, but not in the same league as the Dutch ones. The occupied spaces in the biggest Brazilian cities aren’t used by pot-smoking, guitar-playing young dropouts/tourists as in most European countries, but by entire families, poor people who doesn’t have anywhere else to go. (I’m well aware that this may seem politically incorrect today, but that was just the way things were then.)

In nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro, the poor population had started to fill in the blanks left by the big hills all over the city and turned them into minor cities in themselves, some of them strongholds for drug-dealing in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries, the favelas.

In São Paulo, however, there are no hills sprouting all over the cityscape; one must learn to improvise. In the Old Downtown, the inner city of sorts, there are lots of buildings whose construction was embargoed by a landowner or a politician, and then the machines and the workers simply ceased to do their job.

And the buildings stood there, sometimes nearly finished structures, looking like giant upright swordfishes hanging from some Fisher God’s pole. Or vertical whales, soon to be occupied by thousands of Jonahs – only this time those dispossessed were more than happy to be swallowed by them.

* * *

So I started shooting photos of the Brazilian “squatters”. Then I opened them in Photoshop in search of some effect — not the sharp black-and-white hyper-reality of Sebastião Salgado or Henri Cartier-Bresson, nor the colorful decadence of Helmut Newton. Something that could enhance even more some aspect of their life I couldn’t define. The absence of something, perhaps.

After months of trial and error, I settled for a swirling distortion not unlike the spiraling of Francis Bacon’s paintings. An effect that was vaguely reminiscent of Van Gogh and his use of the trowel to create the wonderful, terrifying stars of Starry Night.

But maybe it was more akin to Munch, because of the deep, dark tones of the photos. I didn’t want the effect driving the attention of the viewer away from the subjects. The dirty, miserable men, women, and children who took shelter and some measure of solace in those places. But who didn’t have a single pigment of color in their lives.

Just like me.

* * *

But I’m not being fair. Time passed much more gently for me than it could reasonably pass for the misérables I still used to shoot wherever I went. I made a comfortable living out of exhibitions and art books.
I started dating a woman who worked for an art gallery. A forty-something blonde, divorced, and mother of two kids who she conveniently used to send to their father’s house every other weekend so I could sleep there with her.

She was quite interesting. She also had an excellent eye for art and a good taste for fashion. But, truth was, I wasn’t in love with her. And the sex wasn’t very good either.

Our relationship lasted eighteen months. She hinted at some further commitment in the near future, meaning “why don’t you come live here with me and the kids?” I liked the kids, and also I liked her, of course, but not that much.

Sometimes I even wondered if I liked anyone that much.

Sometimes I caught myself thinking of the Finnish girl.

* * *

Why can’t one just look for sex in public toilets and be done with it?

Soon after I got back to Brazil, I started stalking the public toilets of São Paulo in the night, searching for…I wasn’t sure of what I really wanted. For one thing, I wanted sex and wanted it now. It didn’t really matter with whom.

I never went to the same public toilet twice. There’s plenty of them in São Paulo — take your pick: bars, subway stations, malls. My favorite ones were the men’s toilets of the malls, specially the luxury ones, that featured mirrored walls. Where I could look at people through them.

But the other places people really lusted after were just the opposite: dark, barely illuminated toilets where you couldn’t see faces. People there would rather not look at anyone at all. Like with glory holes, for instance.

* * *

The first time I saw a glory hole was in the toilet of the Van Gogh Museum. I didn’t even know what it was called then.

Half an hour after my entrance to the museum with the Finnish girl, I had to take a leak. The toilet was full but for one stall. I went right to it, my bladder almost bursting. After a long, healthy flow of steamy urine, I flushed the toilet and turned to open the door. It was only then that I noticed it, that big gaping hole on the plywood wall to my right, level with my crotch. Curious, I lowered my head a bit to look through it.

And I saw a blonde guy sitting on the toilet, masturbating.

I didn’t think he was doing it for my benefit. But he got my attention anyway. I caught myself looking at him, at it, until he came, sperm bursting gloriously free from the penis and soiling the until-then-pristine white tile floor with a strangely beautiful off-white puddle.

I was mesmerized with the scene. I saw the big, pulsating cock, and instantly remembered the Finnish girl wearing just panties in her bedroom door not an hour before.

Then it was my turn to masturbate. Quickly and silently.

It felt dirty.

It felt good.

* * *

Then, one day, I was invited to exhibit my photos in the Documenta, in Kassel.

It was just what I needed to break up with the Forty-Something-Divorced-Blonde-With-Two-Kids. I didn’t have time for anyone right then. I had to get a new passport and the necessary visas. It was only then that I noticed that a decade had passed since I had last set foot on Europe.

I didn’t intend to stay more than a week in Europe — even though the organization committee of the Documenta was paying and I had plenty of money this time to travel all over the Continent if I wished.

But, aside from Germany, there was only one place I really wanted to see. And I needed to go there first.

* * *

The whole plane trip — seventeen hours reclining, stretching, trying to read, eat, and sleep at close quarters – made me groggy and grumpy. I arrived at Schiphol for the second time in, what? Ten, eleven years? I can’t use the cliché and tell you that it was “as if time never passed,” for it definitely had passed, and there wasn’t much I could remember after all.

I took a cab downtown and checked into the Golden Tulip. I took a long, hot shower and relaxed a bit in the fluffy bed, zapping through the channels of Dutch cable TV. But who I was kidding? I put on fresh clothes and went out.

* * *

The house where I had lived as a squatter was still there. But it wasn’t a squat anymore.

It housed a hostel now.

I went in and went right to the reception. There was a guy at the front desk and almost a dozen youngsters checking in and out. I just ignored them and entered the house proper. Nobody stopped me.

To my disappointment, the house didn’t stir any memories. I walked the halls, entered some rooms, almost all of them bustling with boys and girls talking to each other or listening to their iPods, and I tried to remember where I used to sleep. But it seemed all too clear to me now that the new owners had demolished some of the inner walls and changed completely the configuration of the place.

Then I started to feel sad. It was of no use trying to look for anything that could remind me of happier times there. They wouldn’t come back ever again. I started to weep. Feeling incredibly ridiculous, I looked for a bathroom to freshen up and pull myself together.

It took me a while to find it. I shut the door and started to wash my face. The running water was freezing cold, but I didn’t care. I needed that cold.

Then, as I looked up to pick a paper towel, I saw her.

The Bathroom Blonde.

* * *

In the mirror, a pale face stared at me behind my back. I was startled, and I turned right away — to nothing, of course.

But I wasn’t scared. Because I had recognized her.

The Finnish girl.

* * *

I didn’t want to do that. It just happened.

After the visit to the museum, I found myself incredibly excited with the toilet scene. I had never had a homosexual relationship before, but I caught myself thinking of that penis. But I also couldn’t stop thinking of her, of her blonde hair, of her long legs, her panties, and the promise of something she just hinted at in her kisses. And that I was simply not having.

But I tried. Hard. In parks, alleys, dark corners, our first days of timid fumbling were rapidly snowballing into weeks of smart, knowledgeable intimacy.

One night at the end of July, we were snuggling on the old, battered sofa in the living room, wearing almost nothing under her blankets, drinking cheap wine, not talking much, letting our hands and mouths do most of the conversation.

We were sleepy and maybe I had touched her in a way she felt uncomfortable, I don’t know, but, what the hell, we were consenting adults. I was twenty-five, she was twenty-three.

Next thing I knew I was inside her, and my hands were wrapped around her neck.

I came quietly, and she didn’t make a sound either. I was naïve then, so I attributed her silence to the same reason as mine: not wanting to call the attention of the other squatters, especially the other girls. I only realized she was dead the morning after.

Then I ran away.

* * *

I was scared shitless. I took a train to Rotterdam, which was the best thing I could think of then. When I got there it was cold and raining, and my first impression was of a hard, mean, cruel city.

However, Rotterdam was forever outside the reach of my senses. All I could think of was the Finnish girl. The rest was mechanical: I searched the White Pages at the train station for a cheap hostel, went straight there, and stayed put for a few days, unsure of what to do next. I was terrified by the possibility of being arrested in a foreign country. (I kept thinking of The Midnight Express. I knew quite well I wasn’t in 1970s Turkey, but I was a foreigner anyway. Fortunately all this happened before 9/11; I doubt I could have gotten away as easily as I did after that.)

I waited two weeks. Nobody came to arrest me. Then I called my airline in Schiphol and set the date of my flight back to Brazil.

Everything went okay in the end. I took the train back to Amsterdam, where the plane to Brazil lifted off uneventfully, and I got back where I belonged. Safe and sound.

But not happy.

Not until now. Not until I finally could see my Bathroom Blonde.

* * *

Compared to that exhilarating feeling I had in that Amsterdam hostel bathroom, my days in Kassel were nothing. No, less than nothing. The artists, the curators, the people that jammed the museum rooms: everything was abstract, everything had so much less substance than her.

And, when I got back to Brazil, things got worse still — I felt completely empty. Blank.
The streets of São Paulo were crowded, and yet it was as if they were inhabited by ghosts. Everything felt unreal. I wasn’t experiencing any kind of displacement or mental disorder — it was just that I missed her. That was the simple, straight truth. And now I finally understood it.

The Finnish girl didn’t show herself to me anymore. Neither in Kassel, nor in São Paulo. I knew she wouldn’t. Ever.

And I wanted her back. I was not crazy: I knew she couldn’t get back from the dead. I just wished that she could haunt me.

* * *

It took me some time to figure out why she didn’t.

I had to do some research, but that was just to ascertain what I already suspected: haunting seemed to be mostly a matter of geography. Ghosts, phantasms, apparitions are geographically constrained. That’s why certain houses are haunted: because the spirit of someone just can’t leave that place.

It took me only a little bit longer to find a way to build my own haunting.

* * *

I would never be able to return to that damned hostel again. I could visit occasionally, but what was the point? I couldn’t have that bathroom to myself. I would not have the Finnish girl to myself anymore.

It took me a field of tulips in Brazil to finally understand the mechanics of transplantation.

* * *

A few months later, I was hired by National Geographic Brasil to go to the city of Holambra to do a shooting of their tulips.

Holambra is a fairly new municipality. A former Dutch colony created by immigrant farmers from the Noord-Brabant province right after the Second World War, it gained city status in 1993. It was only 74 miles from São Paulo, so we could go there and back in the same day.

We went straight to Veiling Holambra, a farming cooperative famous for its large production of flowers and plants and for an auction similar to that held in Aalsmeer. Even before the NatGeo car stopped in front of the co-op main house, I was already aiming the lens of my camera at the fields of tulips. Reds and whites. Not a single yellow one.

While I was doing the shooting, the co-op supervisor was telling the reporter that the secret to have such a wonderful field was to plant the bulb in the original bed when transplanting it.

“What about the yellow ones?,” I asked him. “Are they more difficult to cultivate than these?”

The farmer shrugged. “No,” he said. “It’s mostly a matter of taste. Brazilian buyers prefer reds and whites — favorites for weddings.”

“So there’s nothing special one must do to cultivate a certain kind of tulip?”

“Are you thinking of any particular one?”

It was my turn to shrug.

“Makes no difference, anyway,” he said. “There is no comfort zone when it comes to tulips. You must handle the bulb with care, but you must also count on the soil. A low nitrogen mix to feed the bulb is pretty good too. With the soil prepared, the tulips will do well.”

I thanked him and finished my job. I was eager to return to São Paulo as soon as I could, because now I knew what to do. The supervisor had given me sound advice. I didn’t need a comfort zone: all I wanted was a cultivation area.

* * *

After careful preparation, I went to a nightclub in Rua Augusta. That street downtown was filled with singles bars and nightclubs, places where I could find no solace — certainly not my Finnish girl — but maybe a similar produce.

I picked up a passable blonde call girl in the bar and asked how much for the whole night. She wasn’t cheap. I agreed to the price and took her home.

She talked so much she barely registered that I hadn’t stopped in front of a regular apartment building, but in one of the “squats” in the old downtown, as near my own home as I could risk. She hesitated just a bit, but when I put two 100 reais in her hand (big money in Brazil) and showed her my camera, she just said that I was a very naughty boy, or something to that effect. Anyway, it was just part of her act; I can’t remember and I wasn’t listening anyway. All I wanted was that she entered the building.

It was a recently abandoned construction site, but I had already been there several times, and so I knew how to enter in a way that didn’t attract any attention. At that hour of the night, however, nobody could care less. That kind of building was always being used by female and male hookers, and the police didn’t want anything to do with that part of town.

We stepped in very slowly and quietly. I hugged the girl from behind. She giggled, lifted her skirt, and started to take off her panties.

I slammed her head on the brick wall before she could make a sound.

She just dropped to the floor like a sack of dirty laundry. I crouched and felt her pulse. Still alive, but barely. Easier to strangle.

After I took the pictures, I masturbated while watching the photo shoot in the camera visor. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t want to spoil the moment. It was blossoming right in front of my eyes. Yellow and red amidst the shadows. Feeding the soil.

I got out of the building unnoticed. If I was lucky, she would visit me someday. She would be my Bathroom Blonde. And, if I was really lucky, she would haunt me forever. If not in my house, here in this godforsaken squat that would never be turned into some hostel for spoiled rich kids.

But, if that by any chance came to pass, then I would plant another tulip. And take my love with me.

It felt dirty.

It felt good.

Fabio Fernandes is a writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. He has published two books so far, an essay on William Gibson’s fiction, A Construção do Imaginário Cyber, and a cyberpunk novel, Os Dias da Peste (both in Portuguese). Also a translator, he is responsible for the Brazilian translation of several SF novels, including Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange. His short stories have been published online in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, the UK, New Zealand, and USA, and also in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded and Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction (2011), with another story coming up in The Apex Book of World SF, Vol 2 in early 2012 (ed. by Lavie Tidhar).