rua do salitre
by Ian E. Watts
Going nowhere in particular, our only aim is to catch the sun’s light among the rustling leaves around the
Rossio Square. Pointing out a couple on a bench, Vanessa mentions, “All interaction between men and
women is a guarded stalking and is always sexual in nature. A careful reading of every glance, every
word, and every gesture betrays masked intent.”
Vanessa’s commentary is interrupted by a couple of women who give her a chin up and raised brow
“A Portuguese,” she continues, “would never admit to the dynamic; it’s the national character to deny any
purpose other than polite. Challenged, a respectable Portuguese would never admit to this underlying
intent to seduce. The morality and polite customs of the patriarchal, conservative, and stuffy society of
Salazar’s Novo Estado lives on! It’s a game played with practiced delicacy. It’s so ingrained in our
subconscious, we’re blithely unaware of the sexual underpinnings of our own movements; we feign
innocence in our actions up to the penultimate moment.”
She lights a cigarette, and we continue our wanderings until we find a bench. Between puffs of her
cigarette, tar-laced coughs, and lazy sketching, she explains her thesis:
“It’s a certainty either a woman or a man is as unwilling to yield to the other who has not used our subtle
code to show their intentions as sexual as to one who made their intentions obvious without playing the
game. We require understated audacity on both sides.”
“This is why catcalls are crass and uncouth: they state what must remain unstated,” I interrupt.
“Exactly, they’re impatience. Portuguese exercise restraint. We need, we crave flirtatious ambiguity. We
circle one another, reading body language and the movement of the eyes, building up attraction and
desire. Yet, since we are engaged in the same duplicity, neither of us is bold enough to make the first
move until we reach the tipping point, where instinct takes over. For a good girl, this convoluted game of
courting without having to open her thighs is an indulgence. The man pleasures her with his words,
waiting for the instant when he can possess her, and withdraws. The coquette is exactly the opposite: a
man too easy is no man worth having. She must pique interest slowly and strike, leaving her mark
breathless. We’re a patient people.”
“Is Portugal some big hook-up bar or something?” I say.
“More or less.”
“I didn’t say it, but thanks again for getting me out of the house the afternoon, you know how I get.”
“We can’t have our star performer always brooding about the shit storm across the ocean,” she says.
We make a slow circuit of the side streets parallel to Lisbon’s esplanade, Rua Augusta, window shopping
for a coffee and a bite before my train home. People pass in formless, dark shapes as I hold eye contact
“What makes a good girl, Vanessa?”
“The same thing as in America, I imagine.”
“Tell me, then. I’d like to hear your definition.”
“A good girl, if we’re thinking about what our parents expect, keeps her legs closed. That’s it.”
“What about making out?”
“A good girl doesn’t make out.”
“Isn’t making out an Olympic sport in Portugal and everyone’s trying their damnedest to make the
“Ha! Basically. With good girls, there’s no touching. Zero. She can tease, show skin down to here, and up
to here. Anything more and she’s a super slut. A good girl would have the sense not to. She’s a tease;
she’ll play, she’ll make herself wanted. Watch.”
Vanessa reaches into her purse, pulls out a scarf and ties it around her neck. She buttons her shirt except
for the top two and unrolls her sleeves, folding up the cuffs. She puts on a dab of lipstick and finger flips
“Bye-bye décolletage, I’m a good girl now.”
“You were a bad one before?”
“The worst. You should hear my parents; it is always Vanessa too much this, Vanessa too much that.”
“Right now you look like a prep. Aren’t they the worst?”
“It is all appearance in Portugal; you know that by now. There are no good or even bad girls. Forever it
has been about being property or control. We have this unique thing that must be protected.”
She slips her hand on her inner thigh.
“And that’s shit. No one owns my body except me. I’ll fuck who and what I want when I want.”
“Do you know Isabel?” I ask.
Vanessa shrugs and shakes her head.
“Oh, there are so many Isabels, I know,” I say. “She lives with Diana.”
Vanessa shrugs again and ties her scarf as a headband.
“There are so many Dianas, too… Babel…. I was at her place the other night with Mário.”
“Her! Yes, what about her?”
“This thing about good girls and you saying slut reminded me of how she had a fight with her boyfriend in
front of everyone.”
“The other national sport.”
“I didn’t see anything particularly slutty with how she was dressed. The only thing was that she had on a
choker. It was one of those slave collars we use to leash you.”
“I wrote it down,” I say, taking my notebook out.
“If the body is asking…” he said, taking a gulp of beer. “My body never asks for anything,” she
said. “Lies. You never put out, but you flirt a lot with everyone. Put your cunt where your mouth
is.” “We’re here to have fun.” “Go fuck yourself. Stop screwing with my head.” “You’re the one
playing the mind games.” “And you’re dressed like a whore in that thing.” “Like a whore, you
say?” she shouted. “Fuck you.” “Well. It’s like this: because I’m empty and a complete bitch, I’m
going to open my legs for you. Fuck me. My clothes are an advertisement, an invite to fuck, right?
Fuck me. My short skirt and my slave collar say that I’m easy, right? Because I’m a deep well,
you shove your secrets and fears into me every night. You fuck away your fear with me.
Everyone fucks me with their eyes making me crazy and hungering for more because they’re
making me crazy like the beast that I am because I’m nothing more than a short skirt. For them
and for you, I open my mouth and throw out my better judgment and tear up my conscience and
set ablaze my past for a blowjob and a titty-fuck. Because I wear lipstick and have cleavage like
this, right? I close my eyes, my ears, and my heart and I take it in the ass or wherever you want.
Your posture judges me stating that I’m a dirty slut, a dumb bitch, and a fucking whore who
deserves to be slapped and abused. My body, my breasts, my legs, and my smile say I’m ready
to take you, right? If I’m a whore for behaving this way, you’re a whore-fucker. Men – little boys –
like you make me sick. Fuck you! Fuck all of this. I don’t need you.”
Vanessa nods, “It’s typical of a Portuguese man to act like that. So typical. I heard about that fight. Here’s
the thing: she’s new to all this. She wants to tell everyone, but not tell anyone. If a stranger asked her ‘Are
you a sub?’ she would swear up and down and say no, but get satisfaction knowing someone knows. Kid
stuff, really. She put herself out there, and her boyfriend slapped her down and put her in her place.”
“So you’re saying she deserved it?”
“No, not at all. We women need to be careful if we don’t know our men. It’s the truth. They can be ugly,
even the worst, when they are young guys. They say they love us and screw with us. What am I saying?
Women, too. Isabel wore the collar like a flirt. There is a time and a place for it, not then. Look at me; you
don’t see me advertising my kinks, do you?”
“No, but that’s a personal choice.”
“Hardly. I am smart enough to know unless I want to get lumps or stares.”
“This was her party.”
“With the wrong people. How many faces did you recognize?”
“Exactly. We are about appearance, and we are about restraint.”
Vanessa holds the tips of my fingers and nudges me to cross the street as a car runs the red light. We
escape with a thread’s breadth between the shouting klaxon and us. She puts her hand in mine. It is
unexpected, but it is now the unwritten rule that I’m hers, and she’s mine.
In the chiaroscuro of dusk-bound cafés, men and women shadow dance in Vanessa’s delicate game. The
most attractive sit, taking in the last of the day’s light, by tall curtains of glass either smoking or having
coffee, posing for all to see. A pretty face catches Vanessa’s attention, and soon we’re behind an Art
Nouveau façade. Every table is packed, making for a perfect place to continue my education on how the
Portuguese stalk each other in their natural habitat.
I listen to the comings and goings of everyone around me. No one says indelicacies such as “do you want
to fuck balls deep?” which I sometimes overhear in darkened corners of breeder bars; rather, greetings
are a light kiss and a murmured “good evening.” But, the gaze speaks of the former as Vanessa points
out in the body language of a young man here and a woman there.
Vanessa eventually leaves me at a table saying, “Fuck all. I only ask that God and all the angels in
Heaven and the Devil and demons in Hell protect you on this eventide of temptations.” She tells me to
watch and goes to the service line. I shrug and sigh, “Eventide of temptations. Right.”
Behind the vitrine, a trio of bow-tied baristas looks on disinterested, aloof, and busied by shuffling plates
and the espresso machine. Vanessa’s the next in queue and has caught the attention of a wine-haired
woman at the cash register; she points at me, and I nod. The barista abandons her post and goes to the
other end of the café and reappears out-of-uniform. All they seemed to do was glance at each other and
now they talking like old friends. For them, I imagine, they’re the only two in this shifting mosaic of faces.
They’re circling each other with practiced glances: first sustained eye contact, then a smile, and finally a
brief touch of the hand. There is no interpretation needed on my part that the game’s begun.
A couple older men, standing and slouched over a brass rail near the vitrine, pivot their heads to watch
the two women approach. Their conversation stops, as does the rising and falling of their espresso cups;
whatever they were murmuring and emphasizing with finger-stabs lingers in the cigarette smoke above
them. With a light kiss between her and Vanessa at our table, the men are reanimated, and their low
static continues where they left off.
“My friend, Margarida. I’ve known her forever. She’s a cutie, no?” Vanessa smiles.
“You’re the Luso-American, aren’t you?” Margarida asks. “What are you doing in Portugal?”
I’m tongue-tied and feel blood rushing to my face.
“Art. He’s making Art,” Vanessa answers for me.
“No, Art isn’t art if it can’t be seen.”
“It depends on the viewing public.”
“Tell us what went on between you and Diana. That was Art. I need to hear your memories. I don’t want
to hear anything about Mário’s camera. Only Diana and you.”
“Here? In front of everyone? And her?”
“She’s game. And our neighbors; talk as though they’re not there.”
The magazine covers over Margarida’s shoulders rustle with every patron that brushes by; women in
broad scarves with loud patterns pick up glass mugs of creamy coffee; a man speaks with intent into his
phone repeating the name Manuel; the wood and brass fans hum on the ceiling above the buzzing
crescendo of conversation which ebbs and flows in one-tw o-three-rest rhythm. No one will notice, no one
can hear, they’re all too preoccupied with their own corner of table to listen in. My own voice will be
Mário and Vanessa’s coaching before the session punches at my conscience:
“Remember: we’re capturing fictive images, nothing more.” “Your rôle is that of a lonely foreigner.” “I
know, but I am lonely, and it doesn’t feel like fiction.” “You have us!” “It’s different.” “How?” “I don’t know; I
don’t feel the urge to write love letters to you, Mário.” “Spite, perhaps?” “And the women, who are they?” “Friends.” “A photo isn’t reality, how you feel is reality.” “Your heart is the only truth, Kiki.” “Drink up.” “Your answer is always to drink this, take that. Drugs mask reality.” “Love does too.” “Stop being so
melodramatic.” “She’ll be at party, let’s go.”
I take a deep breath and try to avoid making eye contact with Margarida.
“I remember the black jeans and soft cotton shirt: she’d just taken them off. After an evening of
clinging to her skin, they lie on the chair. She removed her bra, and it slipped to the floor. She
hurriedly slid off her panties: they seemed a fine gauze covering her sallow flesh.
“Her legs, soft and thin, lie stretched out on the bed. I warmed my hands between her thighs. In
response, her knees slowly rose, half-open, hesitant, and I teased her with my nose. With her
knees up and her heels digging into the sheets, her haunches arched. Her low gasps became a
continuous purr. Tapering off, all that remained was the silence of our breathing, drunk in by the
mouth that awaited it.
“I held her fast by the breast, and gently pressed my thumb into her areola; her hard nipples
“She arched again. My tongue was swollen, thick and wet with saliva, and my long lingering
persistent sucking and licking, slowly lulled her to slack, then tense immobility. She immersed
herself more and more into the exercise of baring the roots of passion, of letting go.
“Her eyes were half-open, fixed on my face, peering at it intently as though mesmerized,
inventing its outlines and engraving them upon her memory. When we fell together on the carpet,
her thighs writhed rhythmically, possessing my arm as though it were a dildo.
“She yielded herself to me: my fingers were buried deep within her slippery wet, my shoulders
were erect, my head leaned against the pillow, arms tense holding down her slender thighs which
moved compliantly in the shared search for the vortex deep within her. We breathed in sighs. I
pretended to be the lover that’s never won nor lost; I surrendered myself and offered myself, to
guide her and to show her the fastest and slowest ways to enhance her pleasure. Fucking her is
a dangerous prospect. I thought I must not feel. But, I was swept up in the river of her in which I
sought the hope of silencing the blood in my veins. In the silk between her legs, in the scorching,
spicy smell of her bush, I breathed in with great gasping gulps that mingled with the perfume of
her secretions. The waters of her internal seas gushed. With her standing on my feet, I yearned
to take her, to traverse her skin with my hands and kisses.
“She allowed my fingers to withdraw from within her and to search higher up, to end the spasm
that softly crept up through her body. The mouth that sucked her and traversed her was like a
well into which she intentionally drowned herself, throwing herself into a chruning frenzy.
“With her lips taut, she buried me deeper within her and squealed, ‘I’m coming.’ I felt her pulsing,
and I moved my fingers knuckles deep. Moaning in pleasure and in surrender, she said ‘Fuck
me.’ ‘I am,’ I said. ‘Slowly, my love.’ Gently reaching her orgasm, her tongue on mine traced its
outlines. Slowly, suddenly I lost her, and she forgot me as everything became a great wave of
“The watchful night devoured us, and she and I lay stretched out side by side, her sweat soaking
the bed, sticking to her smooth skin, her fingers lying forgotten on my benumbed drowsing body.
Peace returned to her supple body, still lying stretched out as before, ready to burst into flames
once more, should she again wish to allow me to pleasure her body.
“I got up and looked out the window and then at the waxen body lying on top of embroidered
“I pulled up my trousers and left.”
“My goodness,” Margarida says.
Vanessa looks at Margarida and gives a light clap of hands, “Well done, Kiki.”
The three of us walk along Rua Áurea and smile at the tourists, bow our heads at Dom Pedro IV, and
continue up the Avenida da Liberdade. We chain smoke and head to a pub for a quick drink; the
bartender winks, “cute lezzies” at me. Margarida hisses “Fuck this shit” back. Our feet take us to a statue
erected in memory of the Great War and we head up Rua do Salitre. Inside a dark apartment, under
family photographs and Christ-on-the-Cross, on a vinyl-covered couch, Vanessa hands each of us
“Come here, sit, smile. The light’s perfect. I fall in love every day, more and more for you. This is my
definition of love. I’m the sort of person that when she likes someone, she has to capture the essence of
whom she loves in sketches. Truth be told, I think we only draw and write what we love to make it
“My biggest fear is that you see me the same way I see myself and I don’t want that, you know?”
“Hush, you’re silly, Kiki. You’re perfect.”
When Margarida reappears wearing an O-harness and a maroon garter belt, Vanessa puts down her
sketchpad and says, “Oh my goodness, I’ve been saved.”
Her smile and deep-set eyes allure to no end. My puzzle-piece heart shatters; I should feel something,
but I don’t. I smile and comment on her beauty.
I stop taking Polaroids and slip out of the apartment while the Vanessa and Margarida make love. This
isn’t the way it is supposed to happen. Attraction should be tender. Who am I kidding? They’re fucking,
and I set the mood in the café.
There’s nothing to do. They’re only fucking. They don’t love each other. If I repeat that, it might make it all
One day it is “I love you,” another, “I like you a lot.” Vanessa once said, “For me, to like isn’t enough. It’s
never enough.” I now understand. I need something different from what I have. I need another word.
This isn’t the way our love is supposed to happen. I slept with Diana for Art. This is Lust.
I walk along the Avenida de Liberdade back to Rossio, rolling without a care in the world. The trees and
statues breathe, and I feel the tender wonder of seeing the world for the very first time. I float down to the
river and sit and watch the waves go in and out. My cell rings and rings and I turn it off. The gulls dip and
glide and I join them in the clouds.
My life’s nothing more than a series of fictions I’ve arrayed around myself. To protect my conscience and
rationalize every completed or desired action, I’m hidden among nested façades – an onion’s layers –
between the truth and me. Slicing into it, there’s nothing but tears at the core.
My cell vibrates. Vanessa. There’s chirp of a voicemail then an SMS, “UR ok?”
Please stop, be with Margarida. Let me alone.
It is nighttime, and the sparrows are still singing. Or is it the people talking and walking around me?
The only person that ever really got me was my ex. I dial and listen to the voice on the answering
machine. I loved her so much, didn’t I? That wasn’t pretended. I hang up. I call again and say, “I’m sorry
Look at me, sitting here on the riverbank, wretched and watching the water flow by. My future will bring
me further down the bank; there’s no denying what will be. I hand roll a cigarette, the paper is as smooth
as the moon’s light, of Vanessa’s skin, of how she tells me all the lies I need to hear. I light the tip, inhale
and the paper and tobacco ashes away.
Look at all the bodies flowing down the sidewalks. I can’t handle all the faces and eyes, looking straight
through me, knowing how rotten I am inside. My skin threatens to slough off, revealing the nothingness in
Another call. Vanessa. Mário. Babel. My ex. Give me space to breathe. I’m suffocating; the moon is
holding my head under water. Smoke. Ash. Walk.
All these fictions, I need to cast them aside and say: to hell with it all. But I cannot. To exist here, I need to
deny myself the truth and pretend to be whom they want me to be. In pretending, I’m free of myself. I put
on layer after layer to forget and slice away the inconvenient. That’s Lisbon: deny freedom of self and
substitute it for the freedom of expectations. Be polite, be bending. No wonder all the shadows hurry
along the riverbank and sit in cafés: they’re nothing but dreams.
My cell vibrates again and again.
I know what they’ll say. They’ll promise to excise all the tears from my heart. They’ll fill that empty cavity
with lies of hope, of friendship, of care.
I want to put my hand in the river and feel the mountain streams and tears of my ancestors. This is why
we left this country: we were told if we behave, life would be good. But it wasn’t, and all those promises
were denied us. We looked for it elsewhere, across the ocean.
“Sorry I haven’t picked up. I’m tripping alone, and it’s all good. I’m watching the river, and I feel peace.
Yeah, no worries. Everything’s cool. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“I just saw you called. Yeah, I left Vanessa. I figured I would be a third wheel and all. Where am I? At the
Praça do Comércio? I was going to walk to the station. No problem. Goodnight.”
“Hi, Babel. You called? Yes, I got ahold of Vanessa. Have a lovely time in Lagos. Sure, we should totally
have dinner sometime next week, and tea would be nice.”
“Sorry I called you out of the blue like that. I know. No worries. I miss talking to you, too. It gets lonely
over here sometimes. I’ve another year and a half to go. I’ll find my way; you will too. Hey, take care.”
Tears stream down my face and they burn my cheeks. Damned X. Damn all these emotions. Damned
Portugal. Damn this game. I was never meant for this world; I was supposed to be for the wind.
Ian E. Watts’ writing has appeared in the Review of Culture (Macau) and was included in Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora in the United States and Canada: An Anthology (2015). His ethnographic work on polysexuality among the Macanese became one act of the banned play “Macau 1 2 3.”