Let me tell you this: it’s difficult to feel sexual desire when you fear for your life. My girlfriend and I have spent ten sexless days at her parents house in São Paulo, and as she drives us in her family’s Fiat through the late-night streets of Brazil, I think only of the muggings, the car jackings, the home robbery stories her family has related throughout the week. We’re searching for a motel—a particular one her best friend recommended, one she and her boyfriend have used many times even though they live here.
In the United States, somewhere in the 1960s and ‘70s, our culture lost the subtle difference in meaning between a motel and a hotel. In Brazil, the difference is clear, a firm line that separates the casual traveler seeking rest (the hotel) from a couple desperately trying to have sex in private (the motel). Even though my girlfriend is thirty-three and I’m thirty-six, we’re trying to escape, for one night, the watchful eyes and ears of her parents. I feel like a teenager searching for a room on senior prom night. Even if we lived in Brazil, we would probably still be under our parents’ roofs because we’re not married. For example, the best friend we left at the bar is a dentist in her thirties and lives with her parents. Not a dental assistant struggling to get by, a full-on dentist. Her boyfriend is also gainfully employed but lives with his parents as well. That’s the culture. And it’s why motels are crucial in Brazil.
While in the United States there are some motels that rent rooms by the hour, they immediately conjure prostitution and are the exception. In Brazil, motel rooms by the hour are the rule, and people don’t necessarily associate them with prostitution, though that’s not ruled out. Motels, for the most part, rent space by the hour for young Brazilian couples wanting to act like Portuguese explorers with one another’s bodies or for lovers and their unscrupulous trysts—the married boss and his secretary. Or for one horny American tourist and his thin Brazilian girlfriend.
You should know we’ve spent the last ten nights at her parents’ house in suburban São Paulo, only a few miles from here, sleeping on separate twin beds, too nervous to attempt anything beyond a goodnight kiss. You should also know that her immigrant Uruguayan parents only speak Portuguese and Spanish, and I’ve only taken two semesters of Spanish. While I could easily order dinner from them and inquire as to where the bathroom is, I can’t hold a real conversation. A few days ago, her father wanted to talk about WWII over beers in their lovely garden, but my command of the past tense failed us. They also communicate with my girlfriend through a form of combative argumentation, every sentence a firm declaration, which is totally foreign to me.
I’ve ended up in the bedroom much of the time, on my assigned twin bed, napping and reading in order to avoid labored conversations and conflict. My girlfriend has reprimanded me several times for not trying hard enough to speak Spanish. After five minutes of conversation with her parents, I tend to stare at the wall while they speak to one another, interrupted in my spacing out only when her mother asks me a direct question.
When we visit her friends, few of them attempt to speak English, and most don’t know much Spanish, so I strain my ears during their conversations to pick out Portuguese and Spanish cognates. In these moments, I feel dumb. I smile and nod much of the time and understand what Japanese tourists—minus the cameras—must feel like in America. It’s tiring.
Even through all this, I still desperately want to see my girlfriend naked. I want to touch the smooth skin on the small of her back where it curves away from her spine up the slope to her perfectly round bottom.
She makes a left turn and drives the car deeper into this neighborhood instead of back the way we came. “Maybe we should just call it a night,” I say.
“It’s got to be around here,” she says. After a few more lefts and rights, to my relief, she heads toward the freeway, toward the safety of her parents’ house. Toward more abstinence.
Right before she reaches the freeway, our ticket to high speeds and safety, she makes another right. We drive on a frontage road parallel to the freeway, which is only one chain-link fence away from us. I stare at the freeway with desire. It’s right there.
“I think I see some,” she says. Up ahead, there are neon lights glowing in the softer lights of the neighborhood bordering the freeway.
“Is it the one your friend suggested?”
“Eric, relax,” she says.
We get closer to the blurry neon lights and they become focused into shapes and designs not unlike vacancy signs back home. There are just exponentially more of them: red arrows pointing down a driveway lined with more red neon tubes, a white stripe-bordered planter box, an entire motel sign wrapped in a glowing blue line. They have names like “Motel Free Love” and “Motel Belle.” Large red lips adorn the Motel Belle’s sign. We’ve hit the motel jackpot. I lean forward and grab my seat with both hands.
My girlfriend drives up and down the motel row. Back home, nothing good can come from cruising a motel row. “What about that one?” I say. It’s the one with blue neon lights and a temporary banner strung up that reads, “Motel Free Love,” contradicting the main sign, which says, “Free Love Motel.” It’s a matter of semantics, but the former sounds like the loving is free and the latter like the room is free. Out front sits a well-lit dead palm tree with one frond dangling.
“You can’t be serious, Eric. Look at it.” She’s right. She drives up the road and points to the Motel Belle, saying, “I guess this one is fine.” Even with the red lips on the sign and the red neon arrows leading down the hill, the long driveway with its ivy-covered stucco walls make it look somewhat posh, if such a thing can be said about a motel in Brazil. Earlier she made it clear that if I wanted the “full Brazilian motel experience,” then I was paying. I hesitate as the car idles at the entrance to the Motel Belle. It’s a well-established fact in our seven-month relationship that I can be tight with money. Frugal, my dad says. Major cheap ass, my siblings would say. But now is no time to be frugal or cheap.
She pulls the car into the driveway, and we make the long descent. We arrive at what looks like a hybrid of a Four Season’s guard gate and a McDonald’s drive-thru. The woman at the guard gate asks my girlfriend what we want. We look at one another and giggle like children whose parents just found them playing doctor. Everyone involved in this transaction knows what we want, but there are options, and some rooms have extras such as a hot tub. We order the most basic room and receive a key.
We drive into what looks like a mini-storage parking lot: rows of parallel pastel buildings with shiny corrugated metal garage doors that don’t quite reach the roof or the cement floor. It looks like the garages are wearing silver half-shirts. The only door to the room is located inside the garage, for extra privacy, I guess. We pull in and I step out into the parking lot to take pictures of the buildings and garages. My girlfriend pokes her head out and smiles for the camera.
Once inside the room, I can’t stop laughing. I’m not sure what I expected—something like a plain American motel room?—but it wasn’t this. The bed has a row of red heart-shaped pillows dangling from a silver bar across the top, providing a comfortable headboard if things should get wild. The entire ceiling is mirrored, of course. Clean white sheets grip the mattress, which a thin plastic cover protects from fluids. There is no bedspread or blankets to speak of, no mistaking what’s to take place here. Opposite the bed, massive dark red lips—like those on The Rocky Horror Picture Show movie poster—dominate the wall and are parted to reveal a mirror. To the right of the mirror, in the middle of the room, is what can only be described as the “porn tower”: a red fireman’s pole that, halfway down, houses a television—playing nonstop porn movies—and a fully stocked mini-fridge suspended in midair.
Next to the bed, on a little glass shelf screwed chest-high to the wall, are various snacks and beverages: two bottles of wine, a red and a white; a small canister of original Pringles; a bag of Brazilian potato chips; regular M & Ms, Twix, a couple other candy bars I’ve never seen, and a semi-phallic tube of Toblerone chocolates.
Below the glass shelf, in the corner of the room, a two-tiered fake granite counter/nightstand juts out from the wall. Arranged thoughtfully on the counter/nightstand are various sexual aids: KY jelly; packaged oils in round plastic colored containers that look like finger paints; a packaged, realistic-looking strap-on dildo; and two kinds of packaged vibrators—one realistic, the other a tapered church candle, batteries included. No joke, the brand of the vibrators and dildo is “American Dreams.” A laminated (of course!) menu of prices lies next to all these goodies. In the corner between the shelf of pre-and-post-coital snacks and the “lips of desire” mirror hangs a leather sex swing. My girlfriend suggests, half-jokingly, that we try it. I wouldn’t touch it with someone else’s ass.
When we exit the motel later, the gate guard will hold us, idling in the car, while she radios a room surveyor whose job is inventorying the room and radioing back, announcing not so discreetly the list of consumed items. At that point, I will be glad I don’t enjoy sex toys, and it will be the only moment on this trip that I’m happy I don’t speak Portuguese.
Like I said, I can’t stop laughing in the room. Who finds this shit sexy? What elicits desire in individuals is so idiosyncratic, is composed of so many genres and subgenres, that you can’t possibly appeal to everyone, but who decided dark red lips and heart shaped pillows are sexy? This is someone else’s clichéd idea of what induces desire, not mine. For me, there’s nothing sexier than a woman in a summer dress or, on the opposite end, a small T-shirt and some boy-shorts underwear, something that leaves a little mystery in the mix. I don’t get the appeal of this room. By some standard, it may be considered the sexiest room in the world, but I’ve never felt less sexy in my life. For me, it’s like wanting to have sex at Disneyland surrounded by cartoon characters (which for some people, I’m sure, is sexy). In fact, I’d rather have sex at Disneyland than in this room; at least I’d be fetishizing the place and not feel like the place was fetishizing me.
While I’m sure motels and hotels in the U.S. are home to nearly as much sex as these motels in Brazil, there isn’t anything there to remind you of other people’s experiences. Even in a Motel 6, there is always a false sense, once you remove the unwashed bedspread, that you are the first person to ever stay in that room, that you are a trailblazer of mediocre hotel rooms. That’s not possible here. It feels more like an adult bookstore than a clean motel room. Whatever desire and sexual frustration we felt over the past ten days evaporates, and we lounge about opposite sides of the bed, never touching.
Apparently, our neighbors aren’t having any trouble getting into the mood. We hear animalistic male grunting and female screaming filtered only by sheetrock and tile. I look at my girlfriend lying on the white sheets, and we both laugh. “This is crazy,” I say.
“You’re paying for the room, so we might as well use it,” she says.
I walk over to the mini-fridge and take out a reasonably priced Brahma beer. I crack the top and take large gulps while sitting on the corner of the bed facing the porn tower. My girlfriend flips from one station to the next. “Are there any channels showing something besides porn?” I ask. She finds one showing a semi-scrambled soccer match. “That’s better,” I say.
I down the rest of my beer and think about opening another one. “Eric, love, come here.” It takes some time and some kissing that feels like a junior high school make-out session, but we finally get around to doing what we came here to do. Nothing about it seems quite right. I don’t feel like myself. I feel like an actor. Like people are watching me perform the most intimate act a human can experience. I feel extra exposed and vulnerable. So naked. How do the people on the television do this?
At one point, when I open my eyes, it’s as if I’m floating above the scene. While I’m flat on my back looking up, I’m staring down at my girlfriend’s back in the ceiling mirror, my legs seemingly growing out of her bottom, my dumb face poking out from the side of her head. We are the pre-separated four-limbed human duad Aristophanes describes in Plato’s Symposium, not yet separated by Zeus for our hubris. Yet her and I exist on separate planes, having separate experiences. And I know our relationship, though it will survive this night, will not last because we are too different, our personalities too polar.
Watching us flailing there, trying to live up to the atmosphere of the room, I can see just how ridiculous, how un-sexy we all can be in the wrong context.