Watch repairman Juarez Moreira left Montes Claros, in the state of Minas Gerais, determined to be a redhead, call himself Gina and survive in the metropolis of São Paulo, come what may.
“Not that I was born all woman,” he said to the startled lady traveling beside him on the bus, who had a doll packed in a cardboard box covered with clear cellophane. “But I know I wasn’t born a man. I’m something kind of… weird. A totally unique creation of nature. Do you know what I mean? That’s why I’m going to São Paulo. There I can assume my true identity. In Montes Claros, they would never let me be myself. They used to gang up on me to beat me up on the street. Excuse me for saying so; I know you are from there. But they’re all a bunch of stupid hicks, who have no respect for human beings.”
The initial changes had begun the very night before the trip in the rest room behind the watch-repair shop. Shaving his legs was not really all that hard. You cut yourself once in a while. But all you had to do was to wet your finger with some spit, rub it on and the bleeding stopped immediately. The worst part was removing his beard. Pulling it out hair by hair with the tweezers. Some came out without any problem, those on the edges. But, with others, you had to pull them with both hands, and it hurts terribly. Even though he rubbed it with pure alcohol, the next day his face was red and puffy from the swelling. But São Paulo was worth it all, and, besides, later his skin would get used to it.
“Is the doll for your daughter?”
“It’s for my granddaughter, who’ll be one year tomorrow.”
“Oh, how darling! She must be a little angel. And you’re the doting grandmother.”
“Yes. If you don’t mind, I’m going to go sit in an empty seat in the back and see if I can get some sleep. Okay?”
Juarez didn’t put on the false eyelashes during the trip, so great was his excitement. When the factories appeared on the outskirts of São Paulo, the early morning sunlight was already burning off the haze. The buildings were getting closer together until there was no more room between them. The city was arriving.
“These two suitcases here. The brown one and the black one. Here’s the stub.”
The bus station ceiling looked like a carnival. Thousands of colored balls attached to each other to form an immense vault that curved down to touch the lunch counters, barber shop, rest-rooms and magazine stands. The people seemed not to share in this festival. They were hurried, preoccupied, sleepy, wrinkle-faced and stiff-haired. But so many dazzling colors wherever you looked were there to suggest that São Paulo was a happy city.
“Bye-bye. Say hello to your granddaughter for me. Tell her Gina sends her love. So long.”
The woman at the first boarding house was firm: “It won’t do you any good to keep on. I don’t rent to queers, even if they’re dolled up like peacocks.” He walked around for a half an hour and got a room for eighty cruzeiros a day behind the power station. He paid for two days in advance and struggled up the steps with his suitcases to the third floor of the old building. On the way up, a fat man in a snotty undershirt, with shaving cream slopped on half of his face, said:
“You need a hand, dearie?”
“Get lost, turkey.”
The room smelled of everything at once, from rotten fruit to b.o. Under the window was a cheap cot, to the side a plywood armoire and in the bathroom a small mirror, a chair and a calendar with a naked lady.
“Goodness! What do I want with this piece of junk?”
He took a long bath, put on sandals and a pair of jeans two inches below the navel, tied his shirttail in a knot and dashed down the stairs. He got to the sidewalk, looked around, went back and asked the doorman:
“Is this the bright-light district?”
“No, this is the red-light district. But it looks like you came to the right place.”
“Oh, yeah? Are you making fun of me? You just wait till I get back. I’ll leave you horny as hell.”
He caught a taxi to Rua Augusta (My God! Is this the street that’s so famous?). He walked around looking in the store windows and bought a purse, another pair of sandals and a bunch of bracelets from a marvelous, dark, blue-eyed hippie, who was selling things on the sidewalk. He bought false eyelashes, flowered panties, feminine deodorant and, finally, on a small sidestreet of Augusta, the cherished red wig.
“Darling, you may think I’m exaggerating when I tell you this wig’s the most important thing in my life. You have no idea what I had to go through to get it, slaving over watches and wall clocks where I used to live. Sometimes, they would have ‘waterproof’ printed on them and I would open them up and they’d be soaking wet. And there I’d be, cleaning them piece by piece, ruining my eyes with a magnifying glass.”
The wig was a shade of red that was hard to find, closer to pink perhaps or to pomegranate. It came already styled with long, flowing tresses. All the clerk had to do was to place it on his head and he could no longer recognize himself. He paid for it bill by bill and started down the street prancing and singing, under the great, ruddy mane:
“I was racing down Augusta Street at eight miles an hour / drove the entire gang away a-running from such power…”
He had a ham-and-egg sandwich across from the hotel. He locked himself up in his room, brushed his teeth from side to side then diagonally up and down, and, making himself comfortable in the chair, began to apply his makeup. His face, several inches from the mirror amid creams, jars and brushes, was prepared with a maximum of care for his first night as a princess.
When the roar of the rows of engines began to die down outside, the long, gold-lamé dress came out from the bottom of the suitcase. Under it, went the panties, the padded, half-cup lace bra and the jersey slip. High-heel shoes and a gold purse, plus a brooch – a pure gold daisy stuck on his left breast – completed the sophisticated outfit.
She tiptoed down the stairs with the grace of a courtier. The doorman was scribbling in his notebook. Gina looked at the man with an air of superiority.
“And now, as a paulistinha, how do I look?”
“You look like a real hick-town hag, sweetie.”
“You’re just being spiteful.”
She waited on the corner for several minutes. Each passer-by gave a whistle or uttered some tasteless phrase. “You crude Italians!” thought Gina, as she fluffed her locks with her little finger. The taxi stopped half a block down the street. She scurried over on her high heels and sat down beside the driver. From her neck there came a strong smell of jasmine.
“Take me to the bright-light district, honey.”
“Just where do you want to go over there?”
“Wherever you take me, dear.”
“I’m stopping in front of the Hotel Hilton. From there, you’re on your own, okay?”
“Is the bright-light district right there?”
“Right there close by.”
She got out at the Hilton, her heart throbbing with emotion. She stopped at the corner to check out the action. Several luscious blondes were cruising by in their big cars, slowly, in search of a few desperate dollars. Gina was looking up to gaze at the skyscrapers that rose in front of her, when she felt something cold brushing her ankle. She turned suddenly and let out a scream that brought the tourists in the hotel bar to their feet. An enormous German shepherd, on a metal chain leash led by a policeman with a red beret, was climbing up on her legs in search of hidden drugs. Neither the dog nor the policeman was in any mood for conversation.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you know that you can’t loiter on the sidewalk? Let’s move along… let’s move along. Oh, and the place for transvestites is over on Rego Freitas Street. This is another class of people here, understand? Now get going!”
“I’m going, but where is this Rego Freitas Street?”
“Are you putting me on or are you an out of towner here?”
“I’m from Montes Claros, Minas Gerais.”
“Oh, all right. Hang a left and keep going straight as far as you can go.”
“Thanks, Mr. Policeman. But don’t let that big dog get loose. If he got suspicious, he might eat me up.”
“Don’t you wish!”
She walked two blocks, stopped at the Rebu Bar on Rua Rego Freitas and ordered a soft drink. Besides her, there was only one young man about eighteen years old drinking beer at the bar across from her. Gina put on a bright smile. The young man called the waiter, paid his check and disappeared through the side door. Gina went into the ladies’ room to freshen her makeup. Minutes later, another transvestite with silvery hair walked in.
“New here, darling?”
“I arrived today.”
“Don’t get me wrong, but you look terrible, like a man. Gracious! You’re really a hick. I can see you’re from out of town. You look too masculine, you know what I mean?”
“Maybe you think so, but I think I look divine.”
“If that’s divine, I’d rather look like the devil.”
Gina paid for the soft drink and went all the way down the street. The first car slowed down. A guy stuck his head out the window, looked her up and down and stepped on the gas. The second one was a Volkswagen bug with a middle-aged Japanese man. He opened the door and asked her how much she charged. “Don’t be silly. I’d love to go out with you,” answered Gina. “You don’t charge?” asked the man, bewildered. “Not you”, she said.
Gina was sure he thought she was a woman. She thought everything so incredible, so fascinating. Not that he was handsome; he wasn’t. He was plump. He couldn’t have been over five feet tall and you could see his scalp through his crew cut hair. But he had a certain charm, and, on the top of that, he was a mature man, one of those who know exactly what they want.
The VW stopped on a dark street, which he said was called Cattle Road. They kissed passionately on the lips, the neck, the shoulders, and his hand started to reach for the tight. Gina began to feel frightened, imagining the man’’ reaction when he discovered she was a transvestite. Before he could find that out with his hands, she decided to tell him.
“Listen, dear. For God’s sake, don’t get mad at me for what I’m going to tell you. But before your hand gets to my private parts, I want you to know I’m a transvestite.”
“Of course you’re a transvestite. If I wanted something else, what would I be doing on Rego Freitas Street, huh?”
“Then you knew all along?”
“You must be from out of town.”
“I’m from Minas.”
“Then you’d better get yourself accustomed fast.”
The Japanese left Gina an hour later at the door of the Rebu Bar, which by now was full of the most varied types of leftovers of the São Paulo night. She leaned up against the hood of a car beside another loner.
“Business tonight is so slow it’s heartbreaking. Want to take a walk? Maybe some Prince Charming will appear.”
“Okay, let’s go. I do need to get to know the area.”
“Oh, you’re from out of town?”
“Yeah, I just got here today.”
“My name is Denise, the love of São Paulo’s men. Let’s go this way over to the Praça da República.”
Denise was a black homosexual, tall with the body of a mannequin. She wore a beige outfit, very discreet, and a dark wig, with impeccably groomed straight hair. She had a very personal way of talking, pouting and turning her eyes between each sentence.
“Have you scored tonight?”
“Have you gone out with anybody?”
“I went out with a Japanese man.”
“Oh, I hate the Japanese. I don’t know why. I guess I was born that way. Where are you staying?”
“Right there near the bus station.”
“Oh, that’s a bad scene. All you get there are the freak tricks. Cops too. In fact, I’ll give you some advice, since you’re new here. If the police show up, hide. If you go to jail, it’s simply dreadful.”
“Have you ever been arrested?”
“Oh, many times. I’ve been thrown in a cell with fifteen others. When it’s with real hoods, like bank robbers, car thieves, smart dudes, then it’s better, because you can still talk with them. But when it’s with chicken thieves and juvenile delinquents, you’ve got to figure out in seconds who is the leader of the cell and get in good with him if you don’t want to get gang-banged. If you’re dumb, you may even get yourself killed.”
“And how can you tell who the leader is?”
“Well, if you’ve got experience, you can tell right off. He’s the one with his bed made, a radio, cigarettes, presents all over the place. If you make it with him, the others will leave you alone. There are gays that get scared and slit their wrists with a razor blade just so they can go to the hospital. I learned karate and capoeira. So they’ll have to hustle to get me. Now when I’m in jail, I talk rough and piss standing up so they won’t get the idea I’m some weakling. Or else, they’ll take advantage.”
The two of them stopped in front of a pin-ball arcade crowded with people and began to watch and flirt with the customers going in and out. They bought popcorn, talked about the movie posters and calmly crossed the Praça da República, winking at those who passed between the gardens and the ponds. They stopped behind the Caetano de Campos School.
“Take a look. Here’s where the male prostitutes get picked up by the gay men that pass. Do you see those cute dudes leaning up against the wall? Well, they’re to be picked up by the gays that come by in their cars.”
“Do they pay?”
“Sure. And well. By now, it must be somewhere around six hundred cruzeiros. But they are not gays like us, silly. Nor transvestites. They’re the bald family men with mustaches and beards who go out at night to have some fun. Watch that Mercedes over there and you’ll see what I mean.”
The Mercedes pulled up slowly and passed by all of the young men without stopping for any of them. Farther ahead at the bus stop, the car braked and a gray-haired man called to a fat guy who had nothing to do with the matter but was simply waiting for the bus. They began to talk through the car window. Denise became indignant.
“Oh, how tasteless! With so many handsome dudes standing there, this turkey had to go and pick the fat dude, who must weigh at least three hundred pounds. And in a Mercedes! It almost makes you sick to see such a depressing scene.”
“Well, to each his own.”
“Yeah, but that’s too much.”
“I think the fat guy was just waiting for the bus. He won’t get in the car.”
“In a Mercedes sports? Sugar, I can see you don’t know anything about São Paulo. This is the land of money. Here everything has its price. Look, he’s already opening the door.”
The fat guy got in the car, which sped away. “He may be fat, but he’s not stupid, sugar. For something like that, he can easily get a grand.”
Denise and Gina passed in front of the night club at the Hilton, where dozens of couples were waiting in the entrance hall for an empty table. Denise sighed.
“If I was a woman, you can bet I’d be invited out every night to a party or night club or a movie. I’ll bet those stupid girls there don’t even make it with the dudes. You’ll find that here in São Paulo. They go on a date, eat at a restaurant, have a good time, the guys blow a bundle and later on the doorstep they kiss good night and that’s it. In fact, it’s really the dudes that are stupid for putting up with that kind of treatment. You know something? Once this dude took me to dinner at the Italia Terrace, one of the classiest restaurants in town. The doorman tried to cause trouble, saying that no transvestites were allowed inside. I had to take advantage of that opportunity, since I didn’t know when another one like it would come along. Honey, the dude I was with was so slick. He turned to the doorman and said: ‘How dare you say such a thing to the African Ambassadress to Brazil?’ You should have seen the doorman’s face. ‘Excuse me, sir. I’m terribly sorry. Please forgive me, sir.’ I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.”
“And why didn’t you stay with that guy?”
“He did ask me to live with him. He had money to burn. He lived alone in a mansion. But he had a problem; in fact, two of them. One was that he never took a bath. And it got to the point that I didn’t say anything for fear of offending him. But I couldn’t stand the filthy smell any more. The other thing was that he only liked to lie face down and he would ask me to stick the heel of my shoe you know where. The bum was really hooked on that stuff. I’ve never seen anyone more perverted. You think I could stay with a man like that? That’s why he lived alone. Because no woman could stand the dude’s perversions. God must have wanted to punish me, since he didn’t give me the privilege and the pleasure of being born a woman. Because I’d go out with all the good-looking dudes.”
“Why don’t you have that operation that turns men into women?”
“I’d have to be crazy. If I do that, I lose my livelihood. Helô had one and it came out okay. At least, that’s what she says. She says it came out looking kind of like a little kid’s prick. But has she turned any tricks since then? Of course not. Look, men don’t want to make it with prostitutes anymore. That’s too ordinary, too common. They’ve already got a woman at home. They want something different. That’s how come we’re so much in demand. See, they do to us the things they want us to do afterwards to them. It’s no fun otherwise. If I cut it off, how can I explain it to them then?”
“Oh, is that how it is?”
“Isn’t that the way it was with that Japanese man you went with?”
“You’re just lucky, sugar. You seem to be really naïve, off in the clouds somewhere.”
A block from the Rebu Bar, there was a crowd of people around a car. Somebody kept yelling nearby. They both ran over to see what was happening. Inside the car, with the windows rolled up, three boys looked at each other frightened. Outside, several people, mostly gigolos and transvestites, were scratching the car with bottle caps, breaking off the windshield and the license plates, braeking off the antenna, letting the air out of the tires, completely demolishing the vehicle. Beside it, a transvestite was screaming: “They took me out and now refuse to pay. Let’s tear up their car. Pull those brutes out of there. I want to carve up their faces. Give me a razor blade. For God’s sake, somebody give me a razor blade. They’re not going to get away with this.”
Fifty or perhaps a hundred people were gathered there, all of them furious at the injustice. The boys hid their faces with their trembling fingers and one of them looked as if he were crying. The group was just about to break the car windows and lynch the three, when a special police squad car pulled up. Three officers carrying machine guns dispersed the crowd. The sergeant grabbed the homosexual by the arm, shook him and asked what was going on there. The transvestite pulled his arm away and began to shout over and over: “They took me out and now refuse to pay, and, sergeant, you’ve got to do something about it. It’s ridiculous. What do they think we’re here for? To…?” “Shut up!” yelled the sergeant. The transvestite quieted down. One of the officers knocked on the window with the barrel of his machine gun and one of the boys opened it. The sergeant came up and, grabbing the boy by his coat collar, almost pulled him through the car window: “Now, pay up what you owe!”
The banknote passed through the officer’s hand and wound up in that of the transvestite, who disappeared into the crowd. The sergeant hit the car door with his fist and shouted harshly: “Get out of here and cut out this business of screwing faggots, you bums!”
Denise was filled with satisfaction. “Well done! It serves them right! Now maybe they’ll stop being bastards and learn to pay up what they owe. That’s how it is down here: if you go out, you’ve got to pay. Otherwise, you’ll get your face punched in.”
“You mean you charge money?”
“What? How’s that? Of course! How do you think we earn a living, pay the rent so we have somewhere to take men, buy clothes, eat, have our hair done…? You mean you didn’t charge that Japanese dude anything?”
“No… I didn’t know that…”
“You didn’t know? You two-bit whore! You shitty hick fag! You’re trying to give us a bad name. You want to take away our livelihood. If you want to go down for free, go somewhere else and get yourself a man. But not here.”
“ ‘But, Denise,’ my ass! You lousy peasant. It’s because of people like you, who have no decency and go out giving it away to the first dude that comes along, that we can’t make it here. Get lost! Scram! I don’t want to ever have anything else to do with you.”
“You’re a piece of shit, do you hear? Go on back to the sewer where you belong.”
Gina went off into a corner and cried to herself, trying to get some things straight in her head. Why all this hostility, all this aggressiveness from Denise, who was getting to be her first friend in this new city? Gina hadn’t charged anything, because she didn’t think it was right to go out on a date with a guy in his car and then demand money from him when it’s time to go. Besides, she didn’t know the rules of the game. She didn’t know how things were.
“Oh, how hard it is to live this twisted life!”
She said this as she walked down Rua Amaral Gurgel, asking directions to the power station. She walked for more than an hour, taking all the unnecessary steps of someone unfamiliar with the area, and arrived late at the pensão door.
“God only knows how much I’m suffering from all this inhumanity.”
Juarez entered the room with shoes and wig in hand. He hung the wig on the armoire door and sat down in front of the mirror, removing the creams with lotion while a light rain was graying the daybreak.
Reflected in the mirror were the window panes and, behind them, the fairy-tale dazzle of the bus-station ceiling. The idea of returning home was there in the colored balls, in a rainbow of plastics and synthetics. As if all the watches and clocks in the world had suddenly stopped running.
Unpublished English translation, courtesy of the author’s heirs.