The shallow, sandy-colored water merges with its dark blue counterpart along the Rio Salomão, where the confluence of the two bodies meets in a tender exchange of nature, much like the lips of two lovers. I could never distinguish the divide of the rivers early in the morning when my father would drag me out of the house with nothing but an old muscle shirt, trunks, and my goosebumps. He would have me enter the boat, sit on the gunwale while he leaned against the hull waiting for our partners, his fishing buddy, Nani, accompanied by his son, Kayo.
The routine was always the same; they'd arrive early, braving past the chill of dawn with their gear. Kayo held a pair of rods, only slightly thinner than his arms, and his backpack was always stuffed to capacity, weighing down his bony shoulders like a heavy carapace. His father would carry the cooler, extra fishing line, a flare, and a first-aid kit. As soon as my father spotted them closing in, he’d hop on board, position himself on the helm, and tell me to look alive.
“Wipe the crust from your eyes, Jão,” he’d order. “We can’t have people sleeping on deck.”
My father treated his boat like a ship, the rivers like the sea; Nani, Kayo, and I were his crew, and the water, its treasures were made for the taking. My father was a poor fisherman, but his heart was that of a king, and so those days, I believed him, fishing and pretending that we were all nothing but pirates. When we caught something, even if it was small like the baby-teethed Pacu or large, such as a Pellona, we’d howl to the sun arched above us like it was the moon.
Kayo arrives early, with two rods, a bag, a white canvas, and very little fishing gear. He passes me a life vest, snaps it shut over my chest. We latch ourselves away from Solomon’s grip and head into the body of the Rio Negro, following the horizon, letting the river guide us with its winding currents.
Kayo starts by covering the corners of his empty canvas with blue. He then adds a layer of purple, gently strokes it from the fringing oceanic hues to as far as the center of his template. He layers his portrait with pink, his brush like a swab dabbing an open wound. He blends the colors seamlessly, having the cool shades gradually touching the warm.
I watch him, observe the subtle movements of his arm, his wrist the perfect cant, swirling white into the sundry shades of the morning glow on his lap. On days like these, I remember Nani positioned near my father like a bishop, Kayo and I, sitting near the bow, the breeze tossing our hair back as the water crashed against the boat's shell, launching rapid droplets into the air, sprinkling them against our copper skin.
I focus on the back of his neck, always the back of his neck. His hair, fading lower and lower, his spine protruding out slightly when he hunches forward to paint, the black beak from his tattoo, rising above the horizon of his loose collar. I then survey his arms, the lighter tone peeking from his sleeves against the dark tan from the skin below his biceps, constantly overly exposed to the sun.
He paints the sky while I trace him with my eyes. He knows I watch him, that I glare at him like a seagull as he crafts an artistic portrayal of the world, our world, the only place where we can coexist, merge like the two rivers.
“Hey, stop it,” Kayo says.
“What?” I shout back at him. “Stop what?”
“You know what,” he chuckles. “I can feel your eyes burning a hole on the back of my head. It’s distracting me.”
“Well, it’s not like I have anywhere else to look.”
He opens up his arms like two wings, turns my way, and says, “Is this really not enough for you to gawk at?”
I want to tell him that the view is unimportant that my eyes focus only on one object. I prefer to hone in on the tip of his spine, see the creeping point of the arrow inked onto his back. I want to tell him to turn to the river, to let me admire him as if he’s a temple, watch the sun, beaming over his head like a halo, rising into the sky, wiping clean all the colors but the white and the blue.
“You’re right. It’s beautiful,” I answer, turning to the water. “But I still prefer something else.”
“You’re impossible, you know that?”
“Te amo,” I recite. “What else can I really say?”
“I love you too.”
In the beginning, I hated him. How he smelled of oil paints, how he spent most of his time contemplating the sky and filling sheets of paper with nothing but silly colorful lines. My father’s boat wasn’t a place for us to relax and drink in the daylight. It was a place for us to work, sweat, throw lines into the river, and pray for something to bite.
My father and Nani would huddle up by the port, talk while lashing out their chords, the hooks dipping into the water, dragging against the foaming surface of the river. I stayed on the opposite side of the boat, whipping at the water, hoping that I could catch something big enough to call their attention over, something massive like a shark that would require adult arms to assist in the tug.
I never understood why Kayo's father never said anything, why he left him there painting so freely, untouched like a wild bird, that if startled, would fly away. My father never allowed me to simply sit and do nothing while on his vigil; whenever he and I were on his boat, it was always to work.
Nani lit a cigar, smoked some of it, and passed it to my father. They chuckled and heaved while spitting the smoke out into ghostly forms. My father smiled, tossed his line back into the water. He seemed so carefree.
“Kayo!” Nani hollered. “That’s enough art for today. We won’t have any space on the walls to hang up your work if you paint the day away. Go help out João.”
“Jão,” my father said, calling me by my nickname. “Teach Kayo the ropes, don’t let him fall into the river.”
I obliged, walked to the stern. “Here, take this,” I said, passing the spare fishing rod to Kayo. “You know the basics?”
He nodded. “I’m not really any good.”
“It’s not about being good; it’s more about patience.”
Kayo smiled, threw his line into the water, and stood by me as we waited in silence.
We come out here every week, but we don’t expect to catch anything. When we were still on the cusp of our adolescence, we had no choice, no real say, so we were forced to stand and endure the weight of time on the soles of our feet. Now the boat has two outriggers on its port, wands that do the fishing for us while our fathers probably roll around in their graves, spitting at us from the heavens for not putting our backs into each swing, for not investing our time in actually working.
My father drowned two years ago, and Nani died of a heart attack months after his best friend passed. Kayo and I still come out to the Rio Negro to think about our fathers, mourn them in the waters, reminisce about the past, letting our memories cascade over the present. I stop the boat once we’re far enough and leave the vessel to troll over the river. I make my way towards Kayo, who is spread out, lying on the floor, his painting of the sky resting off to the side.
“Really?” I let out. “You haven’t changed a bit, you know that?”
“Why would I want to change? Don’t you love me this way?”
He fans out his arm. I kneel down and nestle myself beside him. I feel his skin pull and contract, the rising and falling curves that echo from his chest. He slides his arm under my head, pulls me closer so that I can feel his breath.
“So, how are things?” I ask. “Everything good at home?”
“Yeah. My mom’s alright. Still wants me to head out of state, to go to college in São Paulo.”
“And what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. Stay here with you? Well, at least for a couple more hours,” Kayo answers with a laugh. “And what about your end of things?”
I start to draw stars over the fabric of his shirt right above his rib bones. I think of what to say, of how to gently project my words so that they cause the least amount of impact.
“I think...I don't want to. But I think I’m going to have to sell the boat.”
“Wait, what? Sell the boat? But you can’t.”
“Things are getting tough. My dad wasn’t the best fisherman, but what he made was still enough to keep our family afloat. Now with only me, well, I’m no fisherman; this boat is no good to either my mother or myself.”
Kayo turns to the clouds. He sits up, crosses his arms, and rests them over the tops of his knees.
“I know. But if you really are going away, then this boat really won’t serve me any purpose.”
His eyes sink into mine, “I guess not.”
At the end of our first trip, Nani caught six fish and my father thirteen. Three of the fish my father kept to feed our family for the week while the other ten he sold cheap. Nani worked as an electrician in town and wouldn’t need all of his fish, so he decided to keep only half and give my father the rest of his catch as payment for bringing him and Kayo out for a good time.
“Here, my dear old friend. You can sell these too.”
“What are you saying? Ta louco?” my father returned. “This is also your meal.”
“You need them, and I need you to be okay,” Nani answered.
I remember the fish, their iridescent bodies that shimmered like freshly washed paillettes.
“Our dads love each other,” Kayo commented. “Just look at them.”
“What?” I returned. “Are you stupid or something? They can’t love each other; they're men.”
“Why not? Don’t they love us? Our mothers? Why can’t they also love one another, love that surpasses boundaries, love like two brothers?”
We arrived back to the shore, to the split between the two rivers, when the sky was still heavily blue, but the moon already partly visible. Dad anchored the boat while Kayo ran inside to get his painting.
“Here you go, Senhor João,” Kayo said, extending his painting to my father. “Take it as a payment too.”
My father laughed. “That’s fine, Kayo, really there’s no need.”
“Take it, João,” Nani insisted. “We don’t have any room for my boy's art anywhere else in the house.”
“Yeah, take it,” Kayo repeated. “One day, I’ll become famous, and this painting will be worth a lot of money.”
“Well then, if you’re sure. Let’s pray that this painting does end up being worth a few thousand reais.”
We walked back to the city, our shoes wet and squishy, with the cooler overflowing with fish, their tails dripping like tongues from the ice box's edge.
Kayo leaned into me, “Don’t worry, next time I’ll paint something just for you.”
I’m steering the boat back into the sandy-colored waters. Kayo’s removing the rods from the outriggers, leaning them both against the stern. He climbs up behind me while I’m leading us back to land. He rubs my back, his hand runs up and down the contour of my spine like a cello.
“Everything’s going to be okay. I need you to believe that,” he says.
I can still register the scent of the oil paints coming from his skin. I can feel the rough texture of the dried paint over his palms. I can still clearly picture our past.
He settles his head over my shoulder, his nose brushing the edge of my neck. The moon is out, though the sun has not even begun to set.
“Who knows,” he comments, wrapping his arms around my waist, “maybe you could come with me to São Paulo?”
“And leave my mom behind?”
“Why not? We could live together, rent a studio apartment in the capital, I could study art, and you could…”
“I could what?” I return. “Fish in a pond? Work in a seafood restaurant?”
“You could do something. You could find yourself with me, couldn’t you? Nós dois juntos. Eu e você, me and you,” Kayo says. “I love you.”
I want to say yes. I want to tell Kayo that we’ll remain together, joint like the two adjacent rivers. That we’ll discover new waters, go down spirals, and still, our love will remain.
“I think you should go,” I answer. “I think you should go.”
He releases his hold, steps away from the helm. We stop the boat, anchor it to land.
“Is that really what you want?” he asks before stepping out of the deck.
“It’s not what I want, never. I’ll never want that. I love you, but I also love my mother, this place, and right now she needs me, she needs someone to be there for her, now that my father…”
Tears form and trickle from my eyes. Kayo comes back and embraces me. He kisses the top of my head, his lips pressing against my hair.
“One day, I’ll come back, you know? We’ll still see each other.”
“I hope so.”
Kayo wipes the tears away from my cheeks, smiles at me. He takes my hand while we step out from my father’s boat.
“Wait,” he says, turning back. He hops over the hull, reaches down, and grabs his portrait. He runs back my way, stretching his arm out. “Take this.”
“What? I can’t,” I say. “You painted it. It’s yours.”
"I have tons of paintings like these at home. Take it,” he insists. “This is me keeping my promise. Remember? I told you I’d paint something special for you someday.”
The colors are still a bit fresh. I hold the canvas by its unpainted borders, curl my fingers under its wooden bones.
“I’ll keep it forever.”
“No, don’t. One day, that’s going to be worth a lot. Use it to buy yourself a new boat.”
I laugh at his response while he throws his arm around my neck.
“Te amo,” he says. “Para sempre.”
“I love you too. Forever.”
“Promise me something?”
“That one day we'll come back to this place. Go out to the waters, just like back then, just like today.”
I lean into Kayo. “I promise. The two of us, together, and the two rivers.”