November 30, 2004


By Asphnxma © 2004

There's no fear in the moment. In the moment, you react. Your reptile brain assumes command of the ship, ignoring the confusion and the blurred images as adrenalin courses through your system and the fight-or-flight instinct takes over. The fear comes afterwards, when the neocortex resumes its usual place at the helm and parses the fact that your illusion of personal safety, the little lies you tell yourself so that you can function on a daily basis, is shattered.

For me, the blurred images were an orgy of thin, brown arms and clawed, dirty hands. No faces, though. If you had asked me ten minutes later to identify any one of the swarm of people who jumped me, I wouldn't have been able to. Sure, a peripheral whisper of their collective identity sank into my frenzied consciousness -- they were five or six of them, all male, all young (probably 15 or 16 years old) and all poor -- but in the moment, none of those details mattered. None of their faces mattered, either. My fight wasn't against their faces. It was against the arm hooked around my neck that yanked me backwards off of my feet in total surprise. It was against the hands scrabbling at the summer night air, questing to empty my pockets.

Pockets. What was in my pockets? Left pocket -- disposable camera. The hell with that. Right pocket -- ID and money. The money wasn't important, obviously, but at the time the ID seemed terribly important. Both of my hands clamped over it desperately, the driftwood of my identity in the vast ocean of a foreign country whose language I didn't speak. There was a shredding sound, the sound of one of my pockets being ripped along its seam. Seconds stretched into hours as the swarm frantically tried to pry the prize from within my grasp and I thrashed on the ground under their collective weight.

Then, with a solid thud and a surprised grunt of pain, the swarm scattered and melted back into the crowd. Eric had pushed his way free of two kids that were trying to pin him off to the side and had bullcharged one of the punks standing over me. Leading with his elbow. Into the kid's back. I'll bet that kid had a bruise the size of a baseball for a few weeks. Whatever the result, it was enough to scare off the rest of them. They weren't looking for a fair fight.

Time snapped back into its normal flow as Eric helped me to my feet. "You alright?"

Good question. My adrenalin levels were still up, but they were dropping enough that I could give myself a quick assessment. No blood, no aches, no broken bones, and I'd even managed to retain my ID and cash. The right leg of my shorts was in tatters, and the disposable camera was gone, but that was the extent of the damage.

"I think so," I answered as I brushed myself off. "They got the disposable, but I'm fine."

"Fuck the camera, dude."

"Yeah." Instinctual action faded back into my subconscious as my neocortex reasserted its dominance over my mind. With it came a few wisps of fear as I replayed what had just transpired. I had been yanked backwards by the neck, laid out flat on my back, and literally swarmed by a gang of poverty-stricken Brazilian youths intent on relieving me of anything of value they could find in my possession. What would have happened if I had not had the foresight to remove my grandfather's gold cross from my neck before leaving the hotel? What would have happened if they had been armed with a knife or shank?

"You ready to head back to the hotel now?" Eric's question brought me back to the here and now, thrusting the questions aside for a later time. He seemed eager to leave.

"Definitely." The night's Carnivale merriment had been obliterated for both of us. A phalanx of semi-nude Brazilian women samba-dancing down the street, their hips gyrating to the irresistible rhythm of the dance as they begged us to join them, would not have been enough to override our desire to be anywhere else. Rio de Janeiro had revealed its sinister side to us; it was time to go.

I stared down the impossibly wide Avenida Presidente Vargas to the closest intersection, a long half-block away. There were hundreds of other people milling around, traversing a well-trafficked and well-lit route between samba parades. Many were tourists who carried maps and digital cameras and wore fanny packs around their waists, the type of people that would cause poverty-stricken youths from the slums of Rio to think that the pockets of a street-savvy New Yorker might yield similar treasures. A few of the tourists had seen me and Eric get jumped, had witnessed the swarming thugs trying to rob me, but most were blissfully unaware of the attack, their own illusions of personal safety still firmly intact.

The hell with them and their ignorance. I envied it, but even with the swarm dispersed, I could still feel that tanned arm around my neck, lingering there, violating me with its phantom presence. It's what I would remember the most about the whole attack, even more than the myriad hands that pried at me. Thirty minutes later, an hour later, two hours later, the next day -- I would still feel the arm hooked around my neck, yanking me backwards and pinning me to the ground. That sensation would feed the fear that time and rational reflection would breed, the personal safety issues that would dog the rest of the trip.

At that moment, though, I thought I could shake off the ghostly sensation. I focused on a welcoming line of black cabs that quietly idled at the distant street intersection, whispering promises of safety. They were cabs that, using an amalgam of hideously bad Portuguese and passable Spanish, Eric and I could hire to take us back to Ipanema, to our hotel, to comfort, to a night's rest that would wash away the bad taste of the evening. I was already slipping back into the cocoon of comfort I fancied I would find in the confines of one of those cabs, any of those cabs. All we had to do was flag one down.

After about three or four steps towards the intersection, the sound of something clattering across the street behind me broke my concentration and brought me to a halt. The object that greeted my sight when I turned around was amusing on one hand, but on the other shredded whatever clinging gossamers of personal safety I still retained.

The swarm had thrown the disposable camera back at me.

Asphnxma is a writer from Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of the blog: Riding the F Train.

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