Stroganoff, Strength, and Driftwood. 

He was impressed. I cut the tomatoes for the stroganoff quickly and precisely. He cut the onions. His eyes were glassy, tinged red around the edges. Fragrant onion tears wiped away.

The small brown spot on the right side of the deeply brown iris.

The iris a dark planet with a dark core, the small brown spot a dark moon in orbit.

“Olivia, why did you come to Brazil?”

Focus: male beauty.

What makes a man beautiful?

His eyes. Perfectly symmetrical, round. A degree of emaciation. Thinness. His ability to remind a woman of someone good she might have known in another life.

I tried to focus.

I had to think—I had been thinking about the answer to this question since I applied to answer it. I had many answers to the question, depending on who I was speaking with or to or for or around.

The one true answer behind all the answers: “I’m running away.”

From my home town and its ideas. From my friends and their ideas. From my parents and their ideas. From my larger family and their ideas. From my country and its ideas.

From myself. From my ideas.

He nodded.

We put everything in a hot pot on the stove top.

I  hoped that it would be delicious, that we could eat it tonight and for the next nine months, that what we both had to bring to the table would be enough and more—that we could eat it until my return to my country.

I wasn’t thinking of returning. I had bought the return ticket, but no part of me wanted to—wants to—return. I’m not ready to go back, to start a life, to incorporate my childhood into my adulthood.

Sometimes I’m too fanciful, fantastical. I think that if it can be written, it can be done.


I ate as much as I could of the meal before the dizziness, the nausea, the slips in vision slipped in. . .my body reacts violently to the the days here, the heat. I collapse at night.

We went out onto the balcony. He told me about the women of his past and I told him about the men of mine. He looked down below at the street.

“Vertigem. I feel dizzy—sick—when I think of how far I could fall,” he said.

His book shelf stacked with mythology, classics, titles in Portuguese I couldn’t translate, little renditions of men and women and children from some 70’s Brazilian TV show, a little clay figurine of a man with a mustache who resembled his roommate. Ah, the busty black women on top of the shelf, looking as if they were looking through a window that wasn’t there, for a man that wasn’t coming, and the magnets aligned in perfect rows and columns on the fridge. The dirty dishes in the sink, the view from his bedroom that resembled Scranton’s valley, the cacti outside on his ledge, soaking up the moonlight. The dark Japanese films, the dark Brazilian films, the dark American films he kept beneath his television in his bedroom. A Fight Club poster on the wall. His journal written in Portuguese, the large gaps between the lines filled in with some odd or dark or philosophical or efficient expression in English. The story of his that I haven’t yet read that was made into a short film that I haven’t yet seen.

Maybe he was the man I wanted to be if I weren’t me. Maybe this incited the familiarity, the attraction. Maybe this made him beautiful.

We were on the ninth floor. I enjoy heights. I like to think how far I could fall, how much it would hurt. I like to imagine the safe, shallow grave the body creates when it falls from an unfathomable height and hits the ground, the earth knowing exactly how heavy the body is, how much it weighs, how much we carry—the earth indenting its acknowledgment of that weight.

I’m twenty-three. I don’t remember feeling any recognizable emotions as a child, aside from a dull annoyance toward displays of emotion I found completely overbearing and nearly impossible to process: my mother crying in front of me, my step dad trying to hug me, my sister wanting to brace the fear of the dark next to me, anger from anyone at any time.

I never laid my body on another and said: feel how heavy I am. Carry me.

Instead: don’t touch me.

I was iced over, the frozen pond, for much of my childhood. Sometimes, I still feel immune to feeling: feeling sorry for others, feeling sorry for myself, feeling responsible for anyone’s happiness, feeling responsible for my own happiness. When others are in pain that they themselves create, I struggle to care in a way that is visible. I have learned to appear empathetic because I cannot tolerate the constant disappoint, the anger, the backlash I receive when someone realizes I don’t have any interest in pulling out the daggers they mindfully forge, initial, and force into themselves again and again and again.

And through this performed empathy, I am beginning to feel empathy.

How heavy it is.

Aren’t we always in pain? Why can’t we learn to numb it over with conversation about another strategically chosen topic or a walk around the lake alone or the choice to choose against a series of choices that always leads to acute pain?

Why can’t we just say what’s hurting alone and aloud? Why can’t we turn those words into dust and let them fall from our mouths and through the floor boards, where they can settle and collect deep underground?

I fell once when I was fourteen, through the ice. I fell again when I was eighteen and again when I was twenty.

(I don’t know if I loved those men, if I love those men, as much as I loved and love that they were men—to be a man. I adore men. I hope to have one or two or seven come from my body. I want to see my face in a man’s face, in a little boy’s face. I confess: my only desire to have sons presently is a selfish one. They’re the only way I can fathom to be a man. I sometimes wonder if the sexual desires of heterosexual women or the emotional attachments they form for men really just create a path to a destination where these women can be the beloved, be someone else, to be a man, someone less afraid to walk the street at night, less afraid to initiate the sexual encounter, to enter instead of receive, to take instead of give—if only for an hour during some good conversation or for the length of time that we women—that I—share one body in bed with a man.)

And because I am so cold, I adore love. It warms me. It warms my cold feet, my frigid fingers.

But I can’t seem to stop the winter from returning each year. I might love the winter more than the heat, than the sun that creates the fissures in the ice.

But Brazil is a hot country, dear reader, and for the next nine months there will be no winter, and I will feel no cold.

I went to Carnaval in a town called Mariana. It’s a historic town, with cobblestone streets and winding hills. It was all families and hoards of young people in matching t-shirts. Cheap vodka. Orange soda. Lively live music. The endless dancing to pop songs, to samba. The profound physical exertion the Brazilians bear in the name of celebration. Little food, much alcohol. Much heat, little rest. The post card I bought for a former poetry professor. Must we dream our dreams and have them too?! The food vendors. The rain that night, falling straight down and cold. The crowd, much smaller in comparison to the crowds one sees in Rio de Janeiro, in Ouro Preto, in Belo Horizonte. . .in all the big Brazilian cities. The smallest children, eating rice and beans with an egg on top from a plastic bowl, dancing with each other with precision and confidence. The many colored overhead tents strung taught between the buildings, creating a neon shade over the streets. They were weighed down by the rain later that night, the precipitation gathering in the center of the tents, falling through the fabric like a shower with extremely low water pressure. The girl I spotted on the balcony in a sweatshirt, alone, at dusk, watching the activity from the seductive safe space of her apartment window above Carnaval. The bewilderment, the annoyance, when I left that night of Carnaval early to rest, to warm myself. I wandered the winding streets uphill back to the republica I was staying at for the night with my friends. A Brazilian boy guided me back. We talked, mostly in Portuguese: mine broken, his fast and fluid. He was sporting glitter on his face and he was wearing short denim shorts and a short pink wig (it’s very common for men to cross-dress during this celebration. It’s beautiful). He was medium height, with very light unblemished almond colored skin. He would later remove his pink wig to reveal a glorious ash-brown afro.

We got into it. Smoking, listening to some stellar southern American accordion player—his choice. The conversation was good—it had weight to it. I was focused. He interrupted our flow deep into our exchange, just after I told him he only had to call me if he was in Jersey or near to it. He could crash at my place, wherever that was in the future. I meant that. I wanted to see him in my house, feed him something fatty and American. He had guided me through the rain, my throat swelling with an infection.

“I had this preconception about Americans, you know,” he said suddenly, with his head cocked.

He was squinting at me in good nature, a half smile forming in the right side of his face, in the small corner of his mouth. I think he paused after that sentence to read me. I think he was unsure if I would be offended by his preconceitos.

“Tell me your preconceptions!” I said. “I must know.” I was smiling to open up the pathway, to create the neutral space. I leaned in as if to assure him that this gossip, this judgement, didn’t apply to me, but to the impersonal, infallible “American.”

In this world, we’re honest with each other, usually, when we indicate that we won’t attack one another for our beliefs, if we don’t dominate the conversation while actively displaying displeasure or repulsion for one’s behavior or actions or nationality—actively displaying the fleeting feeling we associate with an offense—no matter what that offense is: murder, oppression, fate, an unreturned email, an accidental hard bumping of shoulders between strangers, a cancelation. . .

For honesty to occur, there can be no sign of aggression or frustration or the indication that we would like to voice and defend our own opinions more than we’d like to hear or consider another’s. We’re willing to negotiate our beliefs for the purpose of civility when we realize that the negotiation can be a business meeting—a merger—rather than a battle.

Fighting—or speaking up and loudly—for the sake of appearing strong—for the sake of showing others your strength—is a social misstep at best and a grave mistake at worst. At best, this social movement indicates passion, but always and at worst it indicates a lack of self control. A ready fighter does not appear strong simply because he’s ready and inclined to fight. The ready fighter simply appears easily excitable, and that’s all.

Strength is most beautiful and most immortal when it is quiet, humble, and hidden away for the day or night when it is truly needed. The constant advertisement of strength will almost always reveal weakness.

In the same token, an argumentative defense ought to be quiet, calm, and swift. An accusation ought to be taken lightly in conversation. When we bear arms too quickly in our own defense, we cancel out the emotional operation that remedies a miscommunication, a conflict. Then, almost always, someone who’s excited misfires.

“You’re selfish. You’re cold. You’re greedy,” he said without averting my gaze.

I nodded.

“I see you,” I said.

I did. I saw him: a brown Brazilian with a national currency 3x weaker than my own, with hardships I’ve never had, who speaks a romance language I struggle to grasp.

“I see how we seem that way. We have selfishness, greed, a degree of coldness. We have love and respect, too. I imagine somehow we’ll even out. . .But we have to get down to Brazil more often, learn a little more love.”

“Preconceptions,” he said, nodding. “You know how they are.”

We laughed some more, and I saw that he hadn’t conceived of me before this night, before Carnaval.

He was named after Romulus.

“Well, sometimes you have to kill your brother to hold the scepter,” I said jokingly.

“No,” he said with a laughter that managed to be fiercely, absurdly serious.

“No, you never kill your brother,” he said. “You never exchange blood for power.”

Logics, ethics—all good and fair.

But do we use these things—logics, ethics—to build a country?—to build countries so rich they one day develop programs to send their citizens to other countries to enrich their own global reputation for the purpose of economic growth and expansion: for power?

Blood is power, dear reader. And the United States, among many things, is powerful.

If you disagree with me, I’ll smile.

In the end, Romulus told me he wanted to go to New Orleans.

“Go! You can do it! If you want it, you can do it!” I told him.

“You’re so confident,” he said in both distaste and good humor. “I will never go.”

You could found Rome if you wanted to, I thought.

He smiled.

I’ve been sick for some time, dear reader.

I stopped eating the lettuce a few days ago, and the pain has stopped, and my stomach has returned to blissful normalcy.

Still, one of the professors who I assist set up adoctor’s  appointment for me. The doctor asked that I have an ultrasound.

The technician said he didn’t think my surname sounded very “American.” I told him Gillespie is a Scottish name. In Scottish Gaelic it translates to “Son of the servant of the bishop.”

“Scottish, eh. That explains the freckles and the red head,” he said with a wink. “. . .Everything looks normal.”

Many men here are taken with the freckles and the red hair. It’s novel, I imagine.

Many Brazilians and other latin students here ask me where I’m from. Their first thought isn’t usually The United States, although a Brazilian friend of mine tells me I am very American looking, and that this is intimidating to men. I’m not so sure what that means, but people don’t seem to be too intimidated by me.

I am fofa, or very cute.

I am told by Brazilians that my voice changes in Portuguese, that I become softer. My Spaniard friend says that, in Spanish, I am quite naughty, strange and boiba—crazy.

These are truths.

Yet, I still don’t know how I am, how I sound, in English.

Mondays are a bit hectic in Viçosa. I’m out all day. I also take a Portuguese class on Monday mornings. It’s helpful for picking up on colloquialisms. Still, I feel most comfortable speaking Portuguese with a woman here who’s getting a doctorate in Biology. She is quite petite, quite fofa, quite quirky, and incredibly supportive. She studies ants. She is also the oldest of three. She taught me how to make dry beans from scratch, she translates at doctor’s appointments, she believes all of the facts I fabricate and laughs when I immediately discredit them.

During the week I teach and read and sit in on American lit classes—because I miss that, and because the language students in that class teach me things—like not to say “sozinha” (sexually frustrated) in place of “solteira” (single/alone).

Of course, I plan for lectures and conversation clubs with my co-teacher. We go back and forth across town, trying to get the many slips and documents we need to buy anything or use the campus wifi. These things are quite tedious, and we bond over the tedium.

That’s a blessing you know, when tedium creates a team.

There’s so many pharmacies here, so many restaurants where you pay for your food by the kilo, so many small shops that sell shoes or tickets to a concert.

All of the women have long natural finger nails, cute sandals, gorgeous rings. All of the men are sun kissed and expressive and loving and friendly. Both men and women whiz by on motorcycles.

You can always buy a cafezinho, a tiny tiny cup of coffee, or a salgado, a small fried savory snack, where ever you go. When I do eat or drink, it seems to be caffeine and salt.

I try to focus on my work. I am constantly distracted by social opportunities, by poor health, by sex, by reading, by writing, by the faces I see everyday. I’m always zoning out.

I think about applying to graduate schools in New York City, to teaching programs in Japan.

I think about staying in Brazil.

But, I don’t think the things I used to think anymore. I don’t miss the same people, the same places, the same things. The things that once bothered me don’t anymore. The things that I used to love, the people who I thought I loved, I no longer love.

Space and time. Time and space.

I don’t know what to focus on.

I confess to you, dear reader—but to know one in particular—that I have much trouble focusing, smiling, feeling, eating.

I have to force these actions most days. Lately, people speak, and maybe it’s boredom, maybe it’s dehydration, but I drift like wood.

I accredit my driftwood mind to the accursed cycle of creation: my menstruation, which, frankly, has been fucked. My three months supply of trusted, balancing birth control was shipped to me weeks ago and it is held and will be held by Brazilian customs for a good six months—or so I’m told, even though I am not told why.

By the help of my dearest Brazilian boy, I procured a Brazilian birth control that his doctor friend felt would be most helpful to me. He planted the seed that it may not be the cycle causing the depression, but something else—that anti-depressants could be a solution.

I smiled and changed the topic.

That night I dreamt that I was falling and walking around the lake, a mix of my lake at home and a mix of the lake at UFV. I felt light and it was winter and I woke up to the Saturday sounds of a hot beloved Brazilian town.

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