I stepped out my front door and deliberately ignored the shapes and the colors that flashed in my peripheral vision from the new store across the street. Rafa’s Tintas had opened six weeks ago. The storefront walls were black, covered in white and red pixo, a style of graffiti that defined São Paulo. The gray door had elaborate black letters, more reminiscent of calligraphy. Splashes of red dotted the window. The contrast of sharp angles and swoops reminded me of an Antonio Bandeira painting or a Jackson Pollock. As much as I wanted to know if the similarity to the two famous painters was intentional, I ignored the impulse to ask.
The primary source of my reluctance was leaning against the door jamb, his tattooed arms crossed over his broad chest. I refused to look, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t aware. A teenager stood beside him, speaking loudly and waving his hands for emphasis. The man laughed, and the smooth, deep sound made my stomach flutter. I yearned to turn towards him, to stare and study the curves and angles of his face, to hear the timbre of his voice. Instead, I pushed my bangs out of my face, adjusted my headphones, and turned up the volume of my music. I continued without stopping.
In the time the store had been open, I hadn’t said hello once. My best friend Natali told me I was being unnecessarily standoffish. I didn’t agree. I had no objections to casual sex with an attractive small business owner, but a neighbor was high on my list of undesirable qualities.
When I moved into my house the year before, I’d been naive. One of the assistant managers at the nearby bakery had asked me out. Ciro. Our date had been boring enough for me to know I wasn’t interested in more. When I declined his offer for a repeat, he took to glaring at me whenever I went in to buy bread. Then he proceeded to loiter near my house and watch as I fumbled to unlock my door. He’d never directly threatened me, but the experience had been disturbing. Thankfully, he’d been transferred to another store on the other side of the city so I could go back to the bakery without fear.
My concern with my new neighbor was less of the stalking variety and more of the proximity-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder type. My post-divorce freedom and newfound identity had been hard-won, and I refused to choose any involvement that would compromise that. The incredibly sexy shop owner was a clear no.
Marina, the owner of the newspaper stand on the street, called my name as I walked by. I took off my headphones and stepped inside. I kissed her on the cheek in greeting, and she went back to reorganizing a display.
“Just finished my last order,” I said, lifting my canvas bag. I was carrying five hundred hand-addressed wedding invitations. Weddings were momentous occasions in Brazil and my main source of income.
She lifted up several sets of blocks and puzzles and dusted the shelf. The decline of newspapers and magazine sales had forced her to branch out into snacks and toys and shoes for toddlers, catering to the preschool down the street.
“Are you on vacation now?” she asked.
I specialized in customized invitations, but my true passion was mixed-media art combining embroidery with collage and calligraphy. I’d scheduled a two-week break from my business to complete my submission for an art competition.
“I will be as soon as I’m done at the post office and bank,” I replied.
She glanced over her shoulder, made a sign of the cross, and said, “God help you.”
I laughed. We were both very familiar with the torturous delays of Brazil’s infamous bureaucracy, and my two destinations of the day were the worst.
“Is the plan the same? You’ll use this time to work on your submission?”
The São Paulo Bienal was one of the most important art exhibits in the country and the second oldest in the world. This year, for the first time in history, they were having open submissions. I’d been working for months to create a piece and still hadn’t achieved something I was thrilled with.
“Yes. I’m going to need every minute of the next two weeks.”
“You should ask your very attractive—and confirmed single—neighbor if he has any suggestions.”
“Marina,” I said with a sigh of exasperation, “the last thing I need is a distraction.”
“I’ve talked to him several times. I like him. He’s quite…inspirational.” Marina pushed her curly red hair behind both ears and raised her eyebrows at me.
She was in her early sixties, had owned the newsstand for over thirty years, and was a staple of the neighborhood. The newsstand was basically a small two-meter squared metal box on the corner in front of the neighborhood bakery. In the time I’d been renting my house, I’d come to consider her a mentor and a friend. I admired her creativity and persistence, though I enjoyed it less when she focused on my love life.
“No thanks,” I said.
Marina put down her scissors.
“Why not?” she asked, holding my gaze until I looked away.
“His store is in front of my house. It’s not ideal for a fling,” I said.
“With any luck, it would be more than that.”
“Wouldn’t call that luck,” was the kindest response I could muster. Marina knew I was divorced; while I hadn’t divulged the details, I’d made it clear that I was not interested in another relationship. Definitely not now, maybe not ever.
Marina turned to face me, her painted-coral lips forming a soft frown.
“Love is the only true luck.”
I rolled my eyes and smiled. I didn’t share her belief, but appreciated her enduring faith in romance.
“I’ll pass. I’m not cut out for love, at least not right now. Just good old-fashioned sex for me.”
“Rafa is guaranteed great sex,” she replied.
“How could you possibly know that?” I asked. I drummed my nails against the counter and yawned, pretending like I was unaffected by his sexual potential but the idea had its appeal. In the two years since the divorce, I’d gone on a few dates, but at my age, most people were interested in long-term commitment. I wasn’t. It’d been three months since I’d had sex and longer since it had been great.
She shrugged. “I’m a lesbian and a senior citizen, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to spot men with skills.”
“He’s patient and attentive. Just last week I was trying to mount this new wire rack and he arrived just as I had given up hope. He stayed for over an hour, wrestling with the pieces until he got it together.”
“That was nice,” I said with reluctance.
“And let’s not forget that he’s gorgeous.”
I rolled my eyes.
“He has to be a great lay,” she finished.
I got goosebumps at the thought of that prospect.
“I’m not attracted to guys with tattoos or beards,” I said. My ex-husband, Gustavo, was the exact opposite. I’d been the one to ask for the divorce, but I still considered him my type, which is why I was surprised that I found my new neighbor so tempting.
She snorted at me. “It’s not good to lie,” she said.
“Little ones never hurt anyone,” I replied with a wink.
She threw her head back, and her full-bellied laugh made me respond in kind.
“We’re going around in circles. No sexy times with the neighbor. I mean it,” I said, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek to signal I was leaving. When I turned around, I walked straight into over six feet of tattooed and bearded, guaranteed great sex.
“Sexy times?” Is that what she’d said? Before I could consider what I’d just heard, my attention was drawn to her body pressed into mine. She was tall for a woman, only a few centimeters shorter than me, but she matched up in all the right places.
“Hello, neighbor,” I said.
Her smile shifted into a straight line and her pale skin flushed pink. She nodded in greeting, staring at my right ear.
“Rafa,” I said in introduction. Six weeks I’d been waiting for this opportunity.
“Lucila,” she said, without the warmth she’d shown to Marina. She didn’t move closer or offer a kiss on my cheek, the typical greeting in São Paulo. It seemed unlikely that she’d been talking about sexy times with me.
At first, I’d been offended by her refusal to acknowledge me, but Marina had explained that Lucila’s reluctance stemmed from wariness over the previous threatening behavior of a man. Every day when she passed my store with her shoulder length brown hair slicked back, large geometric earrings, and bold red lipstick, I itched to call out to her. Her distinctive style and aloofness fascinated me. I hadn’t been so intrigued by a woman in years, but I respected her avoidance. My curiosity wasn’t more important than her sense of safety.
“I’ve been hoping you’d come to the shop,” I said.
Finally, her eyes met mine. The color was astounding, such a translucent brown that they shimmered like gold. They were wide set and framed by long lashes. The fine hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
She turned up her palms, drawing my attention to a swath of blue pen that ran along her left hand and the black ink that stained the tips of her fingers. The word “artist” swooped across her left wrist. The tattoo was delicate and beautiful. I wondered about the missing “a” at the end of the word. The corners of her lips tipped upward but didn’t quite spread to a smile.
“My invitation must have gotten lost in the mail,” she said. Her words were precise and her humor quick, giving me the impression she was older than I’d originally assumed.
“I’ll make sure to hand-deliver the next one,” I said.
She glanced down at my hands. Her gaze shifted to my mouth, and her brow wrinkled in concentration. Marina’s movements, the sounds of motorcycles revving, the conversation of people walking past all faded into silence. There was only me and Lucila. She tilted her head. I noted a hint of sandalwood. We stood, staring at each other for the length of several heavy heartbeats. Her chest rose with each breath. My palms began to sweat. She let out an exhale, the sound echoing in the small space.
“Do that,” she said.
She re-adjusted her bag. As she moved past me, she leaned up and pressed her lips lightly against my cheek. There was barely any contact, but my smile was immediate. She left before I could say anything. As she moved farther away, I watched the straight line of her shoulders, the curve of her neck, the sway of her hips.
“Today’s your lucky day,” Marina said as she kissed me on the cheek. By the time she stepped aside, Lucila was gone.
“Maybe I should play the lottery?” I said, joking away the unexpected chemistry with Lucila.
“Waste of money. The only game of chance worth playing is love.”
I didn’t respond, but I agreed. When I helped Marina put together the shelving unit, she’d told me a little about her life. The commitment and depth that Marina believed in, what she shared with her own wife, I’d had that—once. But I’d lost it years ago, and every day I became more convinced that true love was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It’s too late for me.”
“Of course it isn’t,” she replied.
“I’ve had it before,” I said as I leafed through a magazine. I hadn’t talked about Bruna in a long time. “It’s been years, and nothing else has ever come close. Maybe you only get one shot.”
“Oh, Rafa. Love isn’t a one-time proposition. It doesn’t work like that.”
“Who knows how love works?” I asked, putting down the magazine and shoving my hands into my pockets.
“You have to be as willing to bet on love as you are on the lottery to have any hope of answering that question.”
“Maybe if we had the real thing and didn’t get it right, we don’t get another go,” I said, surprising myself with the earnest sentiment. I liked Marina, made it a point to stop by every few days, helped her when I could, but I’d never even hinted at anything about Bruna.
“You don’t,” Marina said. My face must have expressed my disappointment with her answer because she reached over and patted my forearm. “You’ll never repeat the love you had, but there are definitely other loves to be lived. As you just said, it has been a long time and nothing has come close. But that doesn’t mean it never will. Love can always happen; we just don’t know when or why. That’s why the most important quality for anyone to have, in order to live fully, is the courage to face the unknown.”
I’d faced the unknown many times in my life. My courage hadn’t been rewarded.
“I’ve got too much life to live to give myself over to the ol’ ball and chain,” I said, repeating the line that most men my age used.
Marina tsked me. “Love is never a prison, but I can see my wisdom is wasted on the young.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
She smiled and shook her head. “I’m teasing you, Rafa. I can tell you’re a romantic at heart.”
I opened my mouth to ask her why she thought that, but decided against it. The newsstand had provided enough excitement for one day.