Nationality & Sexuality

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This is an American poem, by an American man, that I have loved since the first moment I read it in an American college classroom in 2015.

I like it because I might have written it. I like it because it exists in the American imagination: my imagination. Vermont, the north, all the green and blue. I’m somehow included in the poem, understand? I’m there, in the green and the blue and I love that more than I can show or tell.

I used to think “I’m American” and I never needed to imagine my nation. I read American poetry. I speak like an American. I act like an American. That’s it. That’s all there is. One culture. One way of expression.

I imagined that.

But nations are not imagined. They are real. They have borders. When I came to Brazil, those borders were treacherous. I was painfully aware of them. I tried to hide that I was different—being different can make you more susceptible to robbery, assault, discrimination, etc,—but that’s not why I tried to blend into the Brazilian backdrop.

I interpreted my differences as alienating, you see, dear reader: I felt isolated in my Americanness, vulnerable, exotic in a way where I was both examined and overlooked at once. And I can’t deny that I wanted to convince everyone that I could be Brazilian, deep down in a darker patch of a strange jungle inside of me—the same part of me that connected to colonization.

I hadn’t imagined before being here that convincing is a form of colonization.

When I missed the stepping stones of Brazil’s social codes I used to get quiet, my words never fully completing, just trailing off at the ends like frays of sleeves of clothes you give away. Embarrassed. Ashamed.  I would walk around replaying mistakes, memorizing the recent misstep to better avoid it in the future, counting the minutes I maintained a neutral cultural vibe—that is, how long it took the question “where are you from” to jut into the conversation—tallying the times no one questioned my foreignness.

I am bolder in the mistakes I make on certain days and not others. More risky some of the time, more cautious most of the time. On a Monday I’ll blush. On a Friday I’m shameless because I remember that life is anything you want it to. 

So, one Sunday, I became the meadow goddess, invited the stranger with the curly hair at the day drink to pass through a pleasant fog with me, to sip the mist, “inhale the grass”.

Platonic curiosity, really. It’s exciting to speak with someone new and see what they have to say about you in what they say to you.

“You’re definitely not Brazilian”

“Definitely not.”

“I studied psychology.” 

“What’s the thing?”

“The thing?”

“The most important thing you’ve learned?”

“When people interact with each other they have a motive, always.”

We were in an alleyway next to the bar. 6pm, maybe. The wind had picked up. I looked out from the alley, at that open space between one brick wall and another.  A space where people appear for just a moment, they walk into the space and then out of it, like cartoons on a comic strip. They’re there and then they’re gone. Curious and humorous.

I started to remember a day in New York—the Macy’s Day Parade. I was in an alley in Manhattan, looking out at the great balloons drifting heavily through the space between two buildings.

I felt like a great balloon.

Then two female fixtures of my life in Viçosa, one American one Brazilian, shrill with fright appeared at the entrance of the alley.

I stepped on the cigarette. Put out the mist. They were checking on me in English.

“I understand you perfectly when you are speaking with them, but I have difficulty with speaking in English myself.”

“Me too.”

“You mean difficulty with Portuguese?”

“I mean difficulty with English.”

A laugh. A nod. A hug.

“No, we didn’t kiss—no he didn’t try to kiss me—no I didn’t try to kiss him—it wasn’t like that.”

Confusion. Platonic curiosity may not be legitimate here. Sexual attraction seems to be at the forefront of most interactions between people in this city. Maybe this is true in the United States, too, and I have spent too much time alone to acknowledge that.

But I can acknowledge that if I ever was an extension of the organism that is the United States of America, I have no issue with borders. I’m lit up now, with light in my eyes, the accent thicker with every other shot of cachaça: with every third inhalation a fluid comfortability and rawness. A sense of acceptance. A pride, maybe? A feeling of bigness, greatness to know that I am not my country. I am bigger than the United States even if I am a product of it. And so I am anything I want to be.

☽ ☾ ☽ ☾ ☽ ☾

I think I understand more about myself and my world through deep friendships with men and women.

By the way, intelligent people say that friendship between members of the opposite sex, or between two people attracted to each other’s sex, is impossible. I disagree. I think those friendships exist under the weight of sexual attraction. These friendships are harder to preserve than others, but they exist. That’s a blessing.

Theoretically, I can be completely comfortable with women precisely because sex and attraction never comes naturally into play with them. This is true with gay men as well. Immediately, I drop inhibitions around them. Sexual energy is demanding and conspicuous for me. My sexuality slumbers around gay men and women of either type and that makes it incredibly easy to make a friend. And so I treasure my world of women and gay men up until these relationships become just as complicated as my sexual relationships with men or my male friendships strained by sexuality.

But, I have never been completely satisfied: not with a sexual relationship with a man I love or with a deep friendship with a woman I adore.

For this reason I have tried once or twice to superimpose sexual attraction onto a relationship I force with a bisexual or gay woman. Neither time has produced anything physical or particularly friendly. And each time I lie in bed for days afterward, imagining and savoring the most intimate moments I have with the men I have loved.

It’s this strange need to be more fluid sexually, even though I am not.

I see freedom in possessing a sexuality that fluctuates, don’t you?

Aren’t you curious about the gorgeous man who appears heterosexual but then later communicates his fierce attraction to both men and women?

Aren’t you curious about the beautiful woman who loves her boyfriend and still has coffee from time to time with his sister, who she slept with a few years prior to meeting him?

Viçosa has a fluid approach to sex. Straight women go to and enjoy gay parties. Straight men kiss and hug their gay friends. Gay men flirt with straight women. It’s a mash-up.

It’s the sexual remix here.

People ask me my sexuality when I first meet them. Men approach me aggressively and women too, just as aggressively. Gay and straight seem to be loose terms for many and completely nonsensical to others. Some people simply travel through sexuality without signs, they deviate. They get lost and turn around or continue ahead. There’s no consequence either way. Isn’t that freedom?

Isn’t it astounding to question your sexuality—your identity—not because you want to experiment sexually, not because you want a story to tell, but because you want to be free.

And that’s what I wonder about, can we choose to expand our sexuality and would that choice render us free? I don’t know. I don’t if we are born one way or another. If we come out more Brazilian or American. If we come out straighter or gayer or more bisexually.

But either way, we ought to have a say. I don’t think our sexual rights should depend on the argument of whether or not we are born “that way”. I think that’s irrelevant. Who needs to justify their sexuality with genes? No one. 

Brazil understands that, which must mean that nationality and sexuality go to bed with each other at some point. 

I wonder which of the two is more submissive and if either one has the desire to be dominated by the other. 

 

Winter Treks

July 01-08, 2017: Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil; Ouro Preto, MG, Brazil;  & Viçosa, MG, Brazil

It’s winter in South America.

A group of friends I made during my rompings in Scranton visited the first week of July. We went to Belo Horizonte and watched sketchy, skillful Brazilians dance American soul music one cold night. I remember the small group of people dancing in formation, dazzling—and the larger stationary crowd circling around them, watching.

The dancers were dressed elaborately or barely. There was an older man in his 50s or 60s—sequined bell bottom pants and a white jacket that flared at the sleeves—swinging his arms and legs wildly to the music. There was a small, dark compact woman leading the best of the dancers. She was wearing a tight white crop top and shiny black pants, snug as skin. Her hair was relaxed and fell at her shoulders. One of her shining silver hoop hearings detached and fell to the concrete as she shimmied back and forth.

Everyone’s eyes were scanning, blinking back the cold, and scanning again. Men approached women, women backed away. A quiet conversation in English here, a loud explanation in Portuguese that I or she or they had boyfriends there.

“I’m uncomfortable.”

“Why?”

“There are more observers than participants, more people watching than doing.”

And so I cut the cold night short.

We ate barbeque then açaí at an ice-cream shop near a playground in the safe part of the neighborhood. Someone broke the swing set before the Uber came, and I remember the soft fright on the edges of the young woman’s face at the açaí counter as she served the loud, dancing Americans their unappetizing mixtures of ice-cream and berry.

My friends ate chicken hearts and tropeiro that week. They took all the same buses I take, walked the same streets I walk, drank the cachaça I avoid. Their mouths fell at the sight of the mountains over Ouro Preto the same way my mouth had fallen that first time. I felt like I was meeting them for the first time, that I didn’t know them. And when I saw them off on the night bus back to the big city, I felt that I didn’t  know myself.

☾☽☾☽☾☽

July 09-15, 2017: Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil & Arraial do Cabo, RJ, Brazil

The Fulbright Organization scheduled the mid-year Latin American conference in Rio de Janeiro, in a hotel in Copacabana.

(I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of returning to Rio. The city had frightened me those three initial weeks in January: the lurking invisible danger, the thorny panic those two consecutive afternoons Moira had gone out in broad daylight to run the lagoa while I stayed in bed, sipping pedialyte.)

I arrived and the city was suddenly different, prepossessing and welcoming. For the first time, I realized that my Portuguese had grown extensively from January to July and I was proud: confident. I was relaxed, fingering my taser in my left pocket in the front seat of the taxi, talking with the driver without pause or misunderstanding, my colleague sitting in the back with the luggage.

I met American Fulbrighters from Argentina (funny, flirty and willing to talk about sex), from Uruguay (level-headed and calm), from Panama (serious and beautiful), from Costa Rica (reserved with hearty laughs), Guatemala (southern and sweet).

It was refreshing, you know? To be around people of the same mold, who had fallen and cracked in a similar way that I had.

It was emotional, too. A female Fulbrighter stationed in Brazil had organized a women’s talk on a Wednesday afternoon. There I confessed how angry I was at the type of treatment I had received from many men abroad. The constant way they shut down my Portuguese with English, never letting the conversation flow in Portuguese but instead always trying to speak English with me, even if my Portuguese was obviously better than their English. The way they sidled up to me in crowds, trying to touch and caress me, the way they thought I owed them something, the way they superimposed their fantasies onto me. The way they told me to relax when I dodged an unwanted kiss or responded in annoyance to a ridiculous question. I was angry, and I hadn’t even known it.

I suggested we arm ourselves against the other more brutal types of treatment many of us had experienced, too.

“We need to be armed—what other alternative is there?”

I left the talk feeling embarrassed and drained and hateful. So I folded all that up in a little emotional napkin with the hotel’s emblem on it and I swallowed it with some seltzer water and a sip of someone else’s craft beer.

In the mornings at that hotel, I woke early to sit in the breakfast room that looked out over the beach. I had hazy conversations with other members of the conference and sipped coffee, trying halfheartedly to drown out the sound of the south Atlantic waves with the voices of my colleagues. I was thirsty and homesick again.

A friend and fellow colleague of mine lives in a demilitarized favela in Rio. It’s a lovely, warm, winding place: a safe place. The community has an impeccable view of Rio and a mild, friendly neighborhood drunk. He wears reading glasses and is never seen carrying bottles of alcohol but somehow never stops smelling of that fiery liquid.

(You can see so much of community’s personality by examining its city view and the behavior of its local drunk—whether it’s expansive and calm or obscured and aggressive.)

Some of us went to a beach town, Arraial do Cabo, after the conference ended. We stayed in a big house with big beds and a big dining table. There were 17 of us and we cooked and cleaned and danced and smoked, and I fell in love with multiple people at once, as I always seem to do.

I impressed a small group of people with my herbal tea, and the amount of shea butter and coconut oil I had brought along. I always pack too much.

We went on a boat tour the second to last day. We stopped at an old beach, once home to the indigenous population, now an indigenous graveyard and tourist attraction. We made sand castles. As I dug deep, the tiny rocks and shell splinters lodged underneath my fake fibra nails. Blood lightly stained the tips of my fingers. I spoke loudly in English, in a deep mock man’s voice, about the importance of public security and flood insurance as I built the castle’s moat. A young Brazilian boy watched intently.

“You want to try?” I asked in Portuguese.

“No, no,” he said with a smile and took a step back.

That old house in Arraial had two levels with a porch attached to the master bedroom. There were also spiral steps that led to a two tiered enclosed landing, but the wind was too strong on the last tier and the bulb was broken on the first, so we smoked and talked about language and music and sex outside of the master bedroom. Not all of us smoked, but we all listened. It was like that every night, a ritual of English conversation, and we were licking it up and saving it for later: for when we arrived in our host sites and English would transform into a tool and subject of study, not the spoken language.

We returned to Rio that Monday, the 17th. I hung with friends in the favela until 10:30 PM (statistically, my chances of being mugged or assaulted increase dramatically after 11 PM. I’m always outtie 3,000 before 11). I said goodbye and waited on the corner for the van to take me down the steep hill my friend’s house sits atop. A woman came out of the corner shop after switching off its lights and locking its doors. She stood beside me.

“I hope the van comes, soon. It’s getting late,” I said nervously.

“I’m waiting for a moto-taxi,” she said. “I live pretty far and I need him to drop me off at the metro where I can take the train then the bus. Then I have to walk. Ugh!” Her hair had blonde highlights. She was slender and tan. She had a small scar under her left eye, on her cheek bone. Her eyes were dark and slightly slanted, some beautiful indigenous lineage, maybe. She was wearing a short-sleeved light blue-collared shirt.

“I hear you,” I said. “I live pretty far, too—in the United States.”

She paused and looked at me, and then we both erupted in laughter.

“You beat me,” she said. “You’ve got longer to go than me.”

Then the van pulled up and her moto-man came, and I didn’t think to ask her name. As I descended the hill I glanced behind me to see her laughing still on the back of a motorcycle. We locked eyes, I waved, she grinned and her cyclist sped ahead of the van and out of sight. I felt like I was watching an old friend race away into the hot night.

I never saw her again.

☾☽☾☽☾☽

July 18-July 24, 2017: Montevideo, Montevideo, Uruguay & Colonia del Sacramento, Colonia Uruguay

I arrived in Uruguay on a Tuesday in July, alone.

Before I went to Montevideo, everyone said how safe it was, raved actually.

“You can walk around with your phone—at night!”

“Nothing ever happens there.”

“There’s only 3 million people, and half of them live in Montevideo.”

“It’s all maté and good, cold manners.”

Portuguese had murdered and buried Spanish deep within my brain, so that every time I spoke in Uruguay, whoever I was speaking to simply assumed that I was Brazilian—the accent so thick and Portuguese.

When I stepped onto the bus shuttle from the airport to downtown, blocking the aisle with my enormous checked bag, I asked a Uruguayan man for directions in Spanish with an unintentional Brazilian accent. He told me that I was “really railing against the stereotype that Brazilians pack heavy.”

I was flattered.

The house I’m staying in is old, with high ceilings and drafts and an abundance of plants and tall windows. My host makes me coffee in the morning and hangs my laundry to dry. He is kind, speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese. He’s a musician. His son is 6 or 7 and speaks to his father in rapid Spanish but will only address me in short, clipped English.

“¿Como estás, chico—que estás haciendo?”

“Fine. Homework.”

His mother doesn’t seem to live with them. But his father did mention that his current Scandinavian girlfriend was the most interesting person he’d ever met on his many tours. He has three post cards from Scandinavia pinned to a coarse mess material that hangs on his wall “to remember”.

My host has friends over much of the time, one of them a Brazilian man I’d like to marry. His hair is like my sister’s when she was little, and he reminds me of a someone I used to know but can’t remember. He realized I wasn’t Brazilian immediately, and when I told him I come from the great state of New Jersey: the biggest, richest, most cultured state in all of the United States, he became hysterical.

“This one,” he said to my host, his friend. He pointed at me, shaking his head, laughing. “This one. . .”

My first day in Montevideo, I biked around the city for 10 hours. I met up with an American Fulbright, Joel, stationed there. We ate asado, tossed around the idea that the only shared identity among American youth today is capitalism, and walked around a bit—him showing me the historical parts of at the area we found ourselves in. His Spanish was excellent, and I was astounded I understood anything at all after all this time and so little practice.

By the time I got back to the house, my ass was bruised so badly from the bike I rode that I couldn’t sit properly.

It was a good day.

I grew lonely that week. It only took 48 hours to recenter after spending two weeks surrounded by people, something I find draining in an acute way, and I had two weeks to kill in Uruguay. 

I decided to go to a historical town, about 2.5 hours from Montevideo, called Colonia del Sacramento. It was cold and eerie and beautiful. I saw one other woman alone, and I followed behind her for a bit and then veered off the third time she looked back at me, her face mixed with curiosity and budding annoyance. 

I had made plans with another Fulbright stationed in Colonia, Connor, who was famous at the conference in Rio for his work editing Wikipedia pages. Wikipedia Connor, they called him. Somehow we hadn’t met, but he was kind enough to pencil me, a stranger, into his day in Colonia. We would meet later for dinner.

I got to Colonia around 8:00 AM and realized about 5 hours later that everything that could be done without wifi had been done. I had seen the lighthouse, the parks, the beach, the old streets, I had shopped around, drank a few coffees, gotten the jitters, walked more, tried to break into the cultural center closed for construction, and shooed away a dog.

I walked and walked and walked some more until I saw my phone was near death, until I couldn’t feel my fingers.

Suddenly I looked up from google maps and saw a sign sporting an enormous painted pot leaf.

I looked through the window behind the sign into what looked to be a weed shop. I saw a young man charging something on a computer and went inside.

There were weed brochures everywhere, weed posters, weed magazines, plants in big incubators with monitoring thermometers sticking out of their soil, glass pipes resting on shelves within glass encasings.

“I have kind of a weird question,” I said in Spanish, my eyes scanning the room in wonder. 

“I’m ready,” he said.

“Can I charge my phone here for a little?”

“Sure.”

I was amazed at the transparency of the store’s product. Everything weed completely exposed in a UNESCO site. Completely unheard of in Brazil.

“Is this completely legal? To sell marijuana here?” I asked quietly, as I stared through the glass cases.

“Uhm, no,” he said. “You can buy it in small quantities at pharmacies and dispensories for personal and medical use, and you can grow your own. But we don’t sell the plant to foreigners,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

“I just want to charge my phone,” I said with a small smile.

Then, suddenly, she was there.

She was wearing crocs with wool socks and skinny jeans. Her light blue crew neck sweater looked freshly pressed. Her perscription glasses were DG, and she was Asian. She was carrying a backpack and her smile was wide.

“Hi!” she said in enthusiastic native English.

“Hello,” he replied flatly with a thick accent.

“I’m from California! This type of store is so common there! I just wanted to stop in, and say hello!”

“Okay,” he said.

“Can I buy some marijuana?”

“We do not sell to foreigners.” His English sounded like an Argentine’s I had met in Rio back in January.

He turned to me.

“Where did you say you were from?” he asked in Spanish.

“I didn’t. I live in Brazil, but I’m American,” I said without looking at him. I was grinning and waving to my fellow.

What. Cosmic. Luck. That this endearing comparison should come walking through the door. She was just standing there, looking around, beaming.

“Well,” she said loudly, “Thanks anyway! Have a great day! Bye now!”

I waved. “Tchau!”

And then she was gone. Her adorable voice and her crocs—gone with the cold Uruguayan breeze! I smiled after her, and then at him.

“I watched this documentary on the Discovery Channel when I was a teenager,” I began. “Apparently pot was an aquatic plant once, made it’s way to the surface and was eventually consumed by cows grazing along the Californian coast. Blasted cows in California, hmphf! Imagine. . .I think the same thing happened in Argentina, too. I’m actually heading there tomorrow. Beautiful men, beautiful Spanish. Very excited. Hey—,” I leaned in a little closer over the counter toward him, “you’re not  Uruguayan, are you?”

He studied me. “I’m Argentine,” he said and paused. “Would you like to smoke?”

You can see the stars clearly in Colonia. They were almost out and shining by the time I met up with Connor. We talked politely and then intensely, and when I curled up in his spare bunkbed later that night I felt as safe and as alone as I’ve ever felt in South America.

I dreamt of my two lost exes and slippery floors and woke up before the sun to catch a ferry to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

☾☽☾☽☾☽

July 25, 2017: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires reminded me of New York City. When I stepped off the ferry that brought me across the 8 miles of Atlantic Ocean from Uruguay, I felt like I exhaled for the first time in 6 months.

There were Starbucks everywhere; many a McDonalds; grand theaters turned bookstores, old movie theaters playing Israeli movies (I caught Between Two Worlds with several other middle-aged/elderly women), cafés with wifi where you are expected to work on your laptop or write in your journal; museums; libraries upon libraries; and, of course, an efficient and relatively clean subway system.

I sat in Café Tortoni the entire morning, where Borges and Einstein had spent countless pesos on coffee and chatter.

I walked for 12 hours and took the subte in between just to feel like I was in NYC again. I quite enjoyed the B line, it has the most musicians and the cleanest entrances and exits that I observed that day. . .

The loveliest part about Buenos Aires, without doubt, is the Spanish. After every question in Spanish that I asked correctly and every clear response I gave, I realized I missed Spanish and the way it felt on my tongue and the back of my throat, how it felt rolling off the roof of my mouth.

☾☽☾☽☾☽

A vendor in Colonia told me I had no American accent in either language: Portuguese or Spanish. She congratulated me. No one tries to overpower me with my own language, with English, in Uruguay. The men that I pass here look directly at me and tell me I’m beautiful without stopping. No one bothers me. You can hear seagulls in the morning and crickets at night.

But where is my fish market behind the hospital—the creperia down the block?

Where is my single screen movie theater across the street—the track around the university lake and the bakery along the busy avenue that serves me and the Portuguese girls and the young man from Belgium who speaks in English with the Colombian who walks his dog on Thursdays?

Where are the white candles I light when I’m nervous—the pink camel printed sheets I treasure and clean each week?

Where is my kitchen drawer filled with spices and loose tea and the teeny ants that munch on the sugar granules I never wipe away?

And where is my sister and my brother and my mother and Mark? And where are my uncles and aunts and grandparents and cousins—the new dog and the old dog and my two female friends from childhood? And where is Jamie and my father?

Where is the woman I met at the top of a hill only to lose her at its bottom?

And where am I and where are You and where is North and where is South and how can I exist here when I was born there?

Queen 

I’m the biggest fool with a foot shaped mouth I’ve ever met. I have decided that I’m untrustworthy and hasty and fickle and immature and that I should be avoided at all costs.

Above all, my writing should be torn apart by readers bored enough to read it, because a critical insult does more to enrich the fool than a compliment. Compliments indulge the pseudointelligent, giving them this long lasting mental carbohydrate that keeps them energized for months, writing blogs and jogging and that kind of thing.


I’ve decided that nothing I write is real.


I’ve decided that writing gives me energy that might be eternal and when I think eternal I think God and I still question if He’s real.


I’ve decided that everything I write is real.


I’ve decided that I’m trustworthy, talented, a blessing really. I ran 6 miles the other day without stopping. I haven’t done that since my high school Honors English class told me I was wise beyond my years. 


The United States is a huge sugar coated piece of coal for me. Sugar and coal. Short-lived, hazardous energy, dear reader. There’s nothing more delicious, more insidious, more deeply underneath than anything in America’s Underneath at this moment, in my hazardous and humble 23 year old opinion. I’ve never longed for the United States more than I do this June. It’s been chilly at night in Minas Gerais, no coal powered heat. I haven’t seen a single firefly. I stopped eating sugar for a week to kill a pesky fungal infection that I may or may not have had. 

Sometimes I make something unreal very real. Like when you make a dead thing alive when it isn’t.

In the absence of sugar and coal and things that light up from the inside, I read a book through. French Lessons. It’s a memoir, a memoir about a woman who learns French because there is a death hideously and painfully splintered up inside her. English is her first language and therefore the language this pain and confusion speaks to identify itself, to manifest.

It’s funny. At times my Spanish is broken and, at times, my Portuguese breaks. . .but English? Everything that breaks me is in English. The daughter I wasn’t, the granddaughter I wasn’t, the niece I wasn’t, the friend I wasn’t, the sister I wasn’t, the girlfriend I wasn’t. The person I’m not.

Sometimes you just need a fucking out. An escape. Other linguistic tunnels. Sometimes I internalize pain and confusion and guilt so hard that my skin tingles. I strip pain of language and I liquify it so that it runs through the tunnels in my body—as if you could silence pain, a neurological, psychological deafening shriek—as if to suggest that the body stays quiet when one refuses to speak.

The author, Alice Kaplan, says “Maybe this book will put a stop to it,” (208).

I like her, making a thing to kill a thing that’s killing her. Maybe I could kill a thing in English or Spanish or Portuguese.

Fulbright tells me that now is the period of the grant that people begin to really struggle being so far from home.

I’ll tell you, dear reader, that I think too much and have been rightly identified as the over-thinking, overly anxious cog in the clock within the same group of friends I have had for a long time. 

My Underneath has an Underneath, na mean?


Have you ever considered the communal, efficient, practiced deliberation of six or seven ants carrying a dead moth to the colony, to sustain the colony? The ants, from above, seem to teeter left and right in hectic desperation to balance the dead weight. Maybe, you think, the moth—the setting sun’s rays glinting off and through the translucent-here-furry-there-red-and-blue-wings—might be too heavy for the ants. But, really, they shift the sustenance expertly in a neurological, biological feat of ant genius all the way to the top of the mound and below it. They return to the colony. They feed the colony for days. Millions of ants feed for days. The colony goes on. Something dead is highly nutritious.

I would make an excellent ant. Imagine that all the ants of my colony have my face and my morning hair and my Spike Lee big black framed bug eyed glasses. I would carry dead moths to the colony. I would wake each morning after my ant sleep, still in the haze of my ant dreams—I was the Queen. I had cunning daughters beloved and in love with me. There was no man in existence around which to question myself or my crown. My ass was big and worshipped and I found myself telling my subjects each night that the dead moths were dead feelings and like the dying sun, gave us life for millions of years and many more moons, and I led worship of the dead moths. Members of the colony sacrificed in crass and memorable ways to the moth gods “so that the colony may never” colonize but spend all of its time burrowing deeper and deeper into the Underneath—the tunnels so cool and so dark and so fit for me, that as Queen I felt that I was the colony and the colony was me and that I was the Underneath, and that the dead moth was an alive me—suddenly realizing my only wish is to search far and wide for a creature whose wings will never flutter before a flame again. 

The glorious finality of this!

I don’t fight for the moth; I don’t compromise with it. It does not injure me; I don’t interact with it. Like a cloth I wear I choose it. It’s not a force majeure feeling that rocks me. It’s dead. I eat it.

I go after dead things. I get on off them.

Cheeseburgers, old feelings for old flames, the contents of bauru, famous memoirs of writers written and gone. These things are so dead that I imagine they’re alive, like that day I imagined that moth fluttered away from that pack of ants, its wings suddenly taut and taught with energy and color as if it had suddenly learned to ignite, and flame had lit up within its fuzzed and partly hollow center.

In Brazil, I focus on feelings I had in the past that I can’t feel now, because the conditions aren’t right anymore—inappropriate. Things that lit me up inside, you know? Things that sink into the Underneath.

I think of this feeling I had standing before a sculpture in a park it would hurt to return to: two creatures almost kissing (the area between their creature lips forever fractional)—the kiss never a kiss, just and only the moment before a kiss. The moment before I ruined our mirroring of the sculpture creatures with completion: the feeling before I knew that the moments before are more beautiful than the moment itself.

I light up on these dead moments. A dead moment, a dead moth. They both spark the same flame in a part of me that feels fuzzy and hollow at once.


Sometimes I pretend to understand things I don’t. Often I have no idea what some people are saying in Portuguese and I nod my head like I do.

Sometimes I pretend I know what’s best. 

But tonight, I made a group of women burst into a laughter when I recounted a story in Portuguese hilarious not for my accent or some unnatural grammatical construction, but hilarious for the content, the intonation, the simplicity of the sentence.

The guy at the counter of this snack place on campus asked me if I was from Ireland.

“You must be from Ireland, yes?”

“What makes you think so?”

“You’re a redhead.”

“Mas moço, meu cabelo é pintado.”

Laughter long and lit. Alive and nutritious.


Sometimes I light up inside. It’s nothing that I ate, psychologically or literally. And I wonder if that makes me dead or alive after all this time I’ve spent trying to convince myself and you, dear reader, that it’s dead things that give me the most energy, lies that offer the most truth, fools that make the most sense.

 

 

 

 

The Fantasy Routine

On Mondays I start creating a collection of water glasses in my room. I put ground coffee and cinnamon and coconut sugar in a coffee filter and I pour hot water over it. I drink the coffee, fry a banana with cinnamon, and grill slices of orange cake with butter (I’ve just started waking up before 11. My roommate is shocked to see me alive before noon). I eat everything. I put my dirty pillowcases, several pairs of socks, some t-shirts and a sweat infused cloth head band into a pink bucket of soapy water and these items soak for a day. Or seven. Then I go to the supermarket, early: eggs, coffee, spinach, maybe spices, maybe grape juice, no lines. Some hours pass, and I teach an English night class at 8:00. Some Mondays I like it. Other Mondays I don’t. I speak a lot of Portuguese on Mondays—just because I run errands on this day and translate all the classroom instructions from English at night. I feel like another person, maybe less foreign.

I have a plant, a succulent, named after Tuesday because it’s my favorite day. I spend time with the same 5-6 people at conversation club Tuesday evenings. I enjoy the 30 minute walk to campus, and the 30 minute walk home. I listen to King Krule when I’m happy, or the Lumineers when I want to transport myself back to New England. Rap when I want to be in New York City. I listen to the Mountain Men when I miss my family. I don’t listen to anything when I miss my old flames or my friends. I stay quiet through that. I almost always imagine fighting crime or being thin like I was in high school, or being home—which could be 1 of 5 places depending on what person from my life I’m stuck on that day.

On Wednesdays I must do something. . .maybe I become another person or I travel to the United States or to space. . .I’m not 100% on what happens on Wednesdays.

Some Thursdays I give cultural talks or I attend one.

Some Fridays I give workshops early in the morning for English teachers. I also show an American movie to any of the students willing to watch. I try to pick movies they haven’t seen, movies that highlight the more awful, realistic aspects of the USA: poverty, sexism, racism. Really, I’d just like to diminish this idea in Viçosa, among the university population, that the US is a perfect place with Iphones, endless money, police protection, and opportunity for all. I think if other countries realize we’re just people like them with problems and imperfections, they’ll stop placing America on a pedestal, and Americans might realize that we don’t belong on one. I’ve shown the The Homesman, American Honey, and I think next week it will be a documentary on the artist Rodrigues called Searching for Sugar Man.

Some Friday nights I decide to make some dish I’ve tried in Brazil that I must stop paying for at restaurants. Risoto, for example.

Saturdays I am myself and wake around noon. Sometimes at night I catch a sequel of some film without having watched the first movie. This has happened three times in Brazil: Fast and Furious 8 (who doesn’t love the Rock?); Fifty Shades Darker (at least it was filmed in Seattle, which reminded me of Portlandia’s rival city, which allowed me to zone out to Fred Armisen yelling “Cacao”); and, most recently, Guardians of the Galaxy II.  (As I watched that movie, I thought about little gods who just want to inhabit their own planets. And I thought of God, who made a planet for little people and left. I thought that maybe people created God in the same way that my mother—carefully—and my father—carelessly—may have created me. Then I got uneasy and I thought about smoking weed, but instead  I imagined that I was a super hero fluent in Portuguese)

I have a plant for Sunday, as well. His name is Sunday. He is a cactus. Sunday is holy and painful because I end up writing on Sunday.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was little. And I’ve been holding my own hand all this time, trying to avoid making a reality out of my fantasy, even though most of my reality is, without a doubt, a fantasy—or at least this is what a friend tells me. Mostly it’s laziness. I don’t feel like communicating anything because it’s work, and I like napping. I get very introverted, philosophical on Sundays. Sometimes I plan for the week, but mostly I avoid my responsibilities and drink coffee until I get the jitters and I go for a glass of water but realize all the cups are dirty in my room. So I sigh. Sundays are for washing all the cups, too.

Every night of the week, when I lie down to sleep, I know that I have no interest in pursuing a career in social justice or government, as many of my bright Fulbright colleagues do. Jobs in these fields are strenuous, noble.

I belong in a classroom, or a library. This is no less noble, I suppose. But, I still feel lost and eager to find purpose.

At night, I realize that I am young. Just a new baby star. I have childish tendencies. I can be flighty. I feel lonely, but I actually prefer to be alone. I rush into things, and then I rush out of them. I make promises I can’t keep and I force myself to keep promises to people who’d rather I break them.

I struggle with being too direct every day of the week.

I struggle to be honest every day of the week.

I struggle to make new friends every day of the week.

I struggle to be understood every day of the week.

I like going to the post office early mornings, sealing my letters with clear sticky paste. I like the market across the street that stays open to the public, even on Sundays. There are no double doors, just multiple garage looking doors the workers raise at 7 every morning. I love lunch time, a two hour period of relaxation filled with lasagna and rice and beans and fried carrot & spinach bolinhas. I adore all the holidays here. We have at least one each month. I love the caldo the catholic church in the next square over serves every night at 8 pm. Winter soup, for free. I love the friends I spend my time with now. And, by god, I love the cheese in Minas Gerais.

But I often feel that I want to go home. And I often feel that I want to explore. I often dream of camping with my friends. Soon, I’ll have a month’s worth of vacation. I’d like to go to Argentinian Patagonia and to Uruguay, maybe feel a little more closely the edge of a cold night. 

Oh, dear reader, the more I travel around Earth the larger my mind seems to grow, and the further away home becomes, and the more I fantasize, and the more I find this sharp concentrated pleasure in my routine here in Brazil.  I imagine that I will cry when I have to say goodbye.

Would you like to know something? I like to imagine what you fantasize about. Fantasies reveal so much about our realities, don’t they? Sometimes they indicate more about us then our routines in reality. Sometimes they inform our reality more than reality itself does.

It’s okay to admit. Your fantasies probably weave in and out of your routine, dear reader, just as they do mine. 

But they also turn my world upside down, these fantasies, every day of the week—so that my routine doesn’t seem like a routine at all, so that my fantasies seem as mundane or obscene or familiar as any Wednesday or forgotten hour of the week. 

 

 

 

Dark Dia

 

I have and always will prefer to be awake at night. I don’t care for the bustle of the day, or waking up early to see a sunrise I could magnify and brighten in a dream. I don’t pull all-nighters (well, all-dayers, in my case) because I cannot function without sleep. I have no fear of missing out on some activity when I sleep, and so I never evade the action of falling into a world I customize.

So please understand the look of slight annoyance I’ll throw you if you insist on telling me I must come out rather than get a good night’s sleep, because sleeping makes my day.

I don’t need vitamin D or a tan because the moon and those white distant stars are bright enough for me, and more hopeful—wouldn’t you agree? Stars shine, even in death. We cannot yet say or see the same of the sun.

If I had my way, the day would be a silent time for sleep and relaxation. The night would be the designated period of work and play and every home would have black-out window shades.

But when do we get our way?

I would say in our dreams—but my dreams are more complicated than that. For me, I have three types of dreams: sex dreams (which I have no control over), nightmares (which I have some control over), and lucid dreams (which I have complete control over).

I feel a sense of extreme comfort after experiencing each type of dream.

I wake up two or three times a night from these dreams, and each time that I wake my brain registers my world in this groggy, drunken, sluggish way. I wouldn’t say that I feel foggy when I wake. 

I would say that I am fog when I wake.

In these moments, these moments that have a slow-mo Peter Jackson direction, I feel that I have been in Brazil for years.

It’s been 78 days.

And today—my 78th day—was my first real bad dark day.

Today, my colleague and I gave a short presentation on American beauty standards. The purpose of these presentations is to foster an hour and a half’s worth of conversation—to create an environment where the audience can verbally build on, in English, a topic of our choosing.

In reality, we’re just talking. We’re just practicing English.

The audience completes a short evaluation after the presentation. The feedback for today was positive, constructive—as always. But, there were two comments communicating that my half of the presentation was “heavy,” and a little too “serious” in comparison to the presentation on male beauty standards.

What does this mean in the grand scheme?

It means a few people would rather converse in English about a lighter issue—or it could mean they would rather talk about female American beauty standards in a way that downplays the gravity of those standards.

What did this mean for me?

A highly evolved, calculating, sentient, parasitic hybrid of embarrassment and anger somehow wriggled into my stomach and laid highly potent, live, time released eggs of emotion in my stomach and intestines.

I was ashamed that I had talked about the gravity of the situation in the United States regarding female beauty standards, a topic which is and maybe always will be, a much more serious issue than the current demands for male beauty. 

I was angry that this issue was thought of by some to be less serious than it is.

I was ashamed that I had tried to offer an analysis about the beauty standards I felt I was subjected to as a female child and now as an adult woman. I was ashamed that I had shared what I felt to be the truth about American standards of beauty: that a white type beauty is preferred, favored, and demanded over a darker beauty, over black beauty. 

When I realized some people were freaked out—were made uncomfortable—by my contribution on this topic, by my honesty, I was infuriated, and wanted to fall asleep and wake up in November. 

I’m sort of running low on emotion—if you think of emotion as fuel and the body as a machine.

You know, I feel almost everything that you feel when and as you feel it.

If you hang around me long enough while you experience a concentrated emotion—you’re feeling freaked out, uncomfortable, feeling incredibly awkward—then I feel this way too.

If you’re incredibly angry, incredibly happy, incredibly sad—I will join you wherever you are.

This is not a choice.

I don’t enjoy hanging onto the back of someone else’s emotional rollercoaster. I am simply built to feel emotions acutely, maybe because I do not have a wide emotional range of my own.

So, if you are around me and your blood is surging a specific emotion, that emotion becomes mine. I adopt it, along with my own. I have to feed and care for those emotions like children.

Uppers, downers: they both have an effect.

Sometimes I run out of resources. My emotional poverty in these situations causes tears, or it resurrects some cutting and cruel streak of ruthless honesty that I must tackle to the floor, or it causes me to leave you as soon as I can.

Today, I feel emotionally poor because today was emotionally rich. I experienced a healthy serving of my own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.

I’m not bitter, just tired.

Sometimes I wish I could dream instead of wake.

Waking brings such a burden, such friction, such seriousness—things no one wants to share with you, unless of course, you’re willing to ease some of their burdens. . .and even then, it’s hard to find someone who will listen to you, absorb your problems and expect nothing in return.

And, besides, everyone tells me what a marvelous dreamer I am, how well I sleep, how beautiful I seem when I’m alive in some other place unknown to conscious perception.


They tell me that when I first wake, I grope around in reality, as if I’m confused, utterly confused, about my existence in waking life—bumping into doors, letting cups fall in mid air as I place them two inches away from the kitchen counter, thinking I’m placing them directly on some solid surface in some other star-lit dimension. I walk in a zig-zag pattern, like a lazy moth flying haphazardly to and from a neon light that illuminates the dark night.

They tell me it’s heartbreaking, watching me exit the world in which I belong, to enter the solid world of reality, of light.

I’ve been dreaming of my grandfather frequently. Sometimes he’s asking me to lock all of the secret doors in his house before he travels. Sometimes he is a younger, fatter man and we’re at the beach again—back when I had blonde ringlets and my world was seven miles long. Sometimes we’re sitting at dinner together, somewhere in Brazil on the back porch of an American beach condo one would never find in Brazil, and I’m facing that old scene of my childhood of marsh and sea reeds blowing in the wind, my Poppy grilling burgers on the porch with a green grill that stands on four short legs a half foot off the ground as my grandmother creates another cozy house in the digital world of Sims.

My other family members are there, too.

In these dreams I do not feel too much of anything.

I do not feel too serious, too heavy, too relaxed, too beautiful, too white, too freckly, too red-headed, too American, too Brazilian, too calm, too independent, too individualistic, too loving, too helpful, too kind, too young, too successful, too good with languages, too sleepy—too much of anything I have been told I am here in Brazil.

I just feel understood and accepted, with the perfect amount of everything I need to make a beautiful, peaceful sleepy world drenched in rain and sea salt. 

Because sleeping weather is rainy weather and sea salt truly is the prime ingredient of dreams.

But dreams are just dreams. They don’t mean much and they don’t last long.

And this is true only because the day takes preference. It is considered more important.

And I will always hold a grudge against it.

In my dreams, and always in my nightmares, I detect and feel such concentrated happiness, from some unknown source—some strange land or strange thing—that I wake up with a remnant of that joy and I grasp at it as sit on the toilet in the morning, long after I have emptied my bladder, my left elbow making a red mark on the top of my left knee, my eyes still closed, the sounds of a Brazilian town’s downtown falling through the bathroom window with the hot breeze.

Unlike most writers, I can only write well when I’m happy. When I’m elated, I can twist and turn narratives like old winding Brazilian streets.

When I’m sad, or someone else places their burdens on my shoulders, or I’m made to wake early and exert energy along with the sun, my fingers fall away from the keyboard, and, if I force them to type, they hit the same key, and I feel I’ve contracted  some small elusive reflexive madness that replaces its own madness with a concentrated and prickly boredom—so that my madness goes mad.

Perhaps I share too much.

But, let me share this with you: just today, I went to a park with my Brazilian boo and his brother and his fiancé. I was turning over all of these new leaves. And I turned a large orange one, with brown, crinkled edges, and it was dirty in the middle and big enough to feed hundreds of shimmering ants with lime colored backs. It was nutritious and it was dying and it would soon become a collection of invisible particles that would never remember being orange and brown and would blend into the dirt and maybe be the stuff of the next large tree some new woman in the future observes.

And I decided that I can say anything I feel as long as it is the truth, the illuminating truth, not the fleeting truth of human judgement or condemnation that one feels throughout the day.

I can sleep soundly in illumination, but not in judgement.

So I’ll tell you about my days in Belo Horizonte, the largest city in Minas Gerais state, because they began so early, and I was always so tired during the day, that the entire Easter weekend I spent there seems like a dream.

There was the hippie fair that Sunday with blocks and blocks of the strangest things: booths of color splashed instruments, of little girls’ Sunday dresses, of purses with equally measured strips of leather hanging from the zippers, of canvas book bags with painted Brazilian flags on the front pockets, of heavy dangling wooden earrings, of incense burners disguised as small kitchen scenes, of women’s bejeweled sandals that never exceeded size 7, of fried balls of codfish and corn, of sausages and cheese skewered with sticks, of figurines of beautiful busty black women, of paintings of birds and mandalas, of every little object you can create in a dream. Shopping and picking things out for friends with my meticulous, overly specific eye at 8:00 in the morning was a lucid dream and a nightmare at once. . .and because my Brazilian was there alongside me, being helpful and sexy and gently placing his hand on the left or right side of my rib cage—depending on which side of me he was standing—to guide me on a straight path—me being too sleepy to walk correctly—,the day could be considered erotic as well.

And those days when we went to a public park and took photographs of the play hobbit house built there, cool and dank filled with hobbit shelves and hobbit stools and hobbit doilies—and those days when I sat at the kitchen table with his mother and his brother’s fiancé and his mother told me in a loud, deliberate, endearing way that my body was Brazilian and beautiful—and those days when those horrid Betim pigeons woke me with the sound of their pigeon feet curling around the horizontal bars outside of my window, with their humming and flapping and desire to wake with the sun.

All these days seemed like today, and every day seems to be the same day for me.

If I never wrote a word I would never remember these days, just as people never seem to remember their dreams.

And I write these blogs and I still can’t seem to figure what is more important, the dream or the day—and which should we remember; and are they same; and would I like to burn brightly or shine in a cold and secret way?

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.

Ideas.

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.

Working it Out

Nights here for me are for sleeping.

The days: for sweating.

I sweat because it’s hot and I sweat because nothing seems to be simple in Brazil when it comes to its institutions or when I have to fill something our or submit something as a foreigner.

I left Rio on a Monday. It was 91 degrees when I checked out of the hostel at 8:00 am. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone I’d met.

That doesn’t mean I won’t remember them forever. I will.

I wrote them down.

Moira had left two days before in the early morning. She woke me up at 6 am and hugged me. I couldn’t fall back asleep for some time.

As I left the hostel, I forgot to bring the honey and tea I’d bought back when I was battling that sinus infection. No one reminded me to grab them because no one knew I was leaving.

That’s life in a hostel. You’ll see someone everyday for a month, and one day  they’re gone. This isn’t rude or abnormal, it’s just the way it is.

I adore that.

My adoration for the hostel lifestyle quickly evaporated when I climbed into the Uber and realized that this was the first time I was alone in Brazil, traveling from one location to another without a travel buddy.

For some this would be an exhilarating experience.

For me, it was a fact—an isolating fact.

Sometimes, I’m not as fearless as I think I am, or will be. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter if I’m scared, if I’m frightened, if I  don’t live up to my expectations in imagined moments that become reality without warning.

We can act in fear, in anxiety, in despair. We can put one foot in front of the other as our heart races. Our heart races due to the fact—the bold fact—that we are alone, and nobody is going to hold our hand or support us, no matter what pickle or deep depression we find ourselves in.

We create another Entity—maybe it’s God, maybe it’s us. And with the support of that Entity, we drag ourselves to the airport or to work each morning or to the classroom or to the court room or to the jail cell or to the hospital room.

We do it alone with the Entity, because it’s no one else’s responsibility.

If strangers or friends or family—if people—can help us: that’s a blessing.

If they can’t or won’t: that’s life.

I remember dragging my suitcases—all three of them—through the airport.

I carry too much weight.

When you carry too much weight through life, life usually penalizes you with patterns of abuse or self loathing or loneliness or the destruction of your most cherished relationships—a personal pattern of mine.

When you carry too much weight during a domestic flight in Brazil, Brazil charges excess baggage fees—annoying, yes, but slightly more kind than life.

My airline dictated that I pay 1/2 of the current day’s ticket fare to São Paulo for every excess kilo.

So, for example, if someone is 2 kilos over, they pay the price of another entire plane ticket as it is priced for that day. Say someone originally paid 80 reais two months earlier for their ticket. If they are 4 kilos over, they must purchase the equivalent of two more plane tickets at 105 reais, that day’s ticket fare, to board the plane with their luggage.

That’s just an example, but you get the idea.

It adds up.

I was 23 kilos over the limit that Monday.

The ticket price to São Paulo that day was well over 50 reais more than what I had originally paid.

I remember thinking that I would pay over 800 reais in baggage fees, or 250 American dollars.

Fulbright scholars don’t exactly roll around in cash, dear reader. We often have to scrounge and scrape like everyone else, despite what other people might tell you. Moving to a different country and getting paid once every three months is not what one would describe as financially liberating. Don’t get it twisted, the grant is healthy and the Fulbright Organization takes care of its people, but it does not offer its scholars a lavish lifestyle. Some scholars might achieve that with funds they’ve previously accumulated prior to their grant, and other scholars come from wealth. However, the majority of us are not blessed in these ways.

I digress.

The airline employee told me I was in excess, wrote something in chicken scratch on a piece of paper, handed it to me, and pointed to what could have been any one of several different women across the room at a counter. The employee, a young woman with soft pink lipstick, a blue and white fitted dress, and a set of wing’s with my airline’s name pinned to her breast pocket spoke a series of sentences.

The only sentence I could discern: “Pay that woman over there.”

I walked over to the women, and showed them the paper.

“I’m in excess,” I said sheepishly.

One of the women nodded and walked behind the counter and took my slip. She looked at me and then at the paper, and then at me again.

“You’re an American,” she said in Portuguese.

“I am,” I said.

“Your president—he’s nuts! Did you vote for him?”

“He is. I did not,” I said and put my hands up in the air in fine Ricky Bobby fashion. “I don’t know what to do about him, but four years can’t be too long. . .”

I could sense that she was interpreting me as cute, innocent, possibly endearing—maybe even squeezable. Her eyes sort of lit up the way stars do when the sun has just set, sort of a faint glow in the background of the fading brightness, almost undetectable.

“I see that you are 6 kilos in excess. 140 reais, please.”

She winked.

I handed her the money in sheer, silky surprise. She had deducted 17 kilos from the bill and acted as if she hadn’t.

She’d saved me too much money.

I thanked her and quickly left, even though she had said several things to me that I didn’t understand. I was so touched by her kindness that it sent me buzzing  upstairs to security.

Once I got there, a security guard asked me for my boarding pass. I pulled out my phone, he scanned it, and a red light flashed.

He shook his head: “No, that isn’t it.”

. . .Road block.

I told him this was the only pass I had and asked him if he spoke English. He shrugged in an apologetic way: no. I was holding up the line, and people began to pass me—then they started to flood past me. I tried to speak with the guard in Portuguese, but he couldn’t understand me. The people passing by created a larger and larger space between me and the guard.

Then some beautiful middle aged Brazilian man came up to me: just some random guy, his hair salt and pepper, his eyes green.

“I will translate,” he said in English.

He bridged the gap the crowd had created between me and the guard, and suddenly they were speaking together rapidly. The man turned to me.

“You have to go downstairs and get a new boarding pass, your seat has been given away. You have to get a new one. Then come up here again. No problems. Have a nice trip!”

And he was gone with the crowd.

I felt like crying. Nothing was working and everyone was helping me.

I went back downstairs, showed several women my phone and my slips and my passport. They redirected me to the woman with the pink lipstick who originally told me I was in excess. She smiled and began issuing me a new pass.

“You finally returned!”

When you’re in excess here in Brazil, you are told so by one person, you pay another, and then you return to the person who sent you away to pay and they give you a new boarding pass.

“Would you mind taking an earlier flight?” she said to me as she handed me the new pass.

I looked down at the slip, I had been reassigned to another plane that was boarding then, right then!

“What I mean is, you have to take an earlier flight,”she added nonchalantly. “Your bags are too heavy to go on the original flight. I cancelled your original seat while you were paying the excess fees.”

“I’m back!” I said to the guard breathlessly. “I have it now! It works! I gotta go!”

He smiled and scanned the pass slowly. The green light flashed.

I didn’t take my shoes off at security. I didn’t remove my laptop from my backpack or the taser I carry from my purse, no one asked me to.

I got on that early plane to São Paulo with an enormous blanket, 13 shirts on my torso, thick yoga pants and 4 other pairs of jeans tied to my waist. Carrying these items didn’t do much to reduce the excess weight, and it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. I don’t know why I thought carrying all those extras clothes all the way to the airport would help.

6 kilos in excess was all I was going to pay when it came down to it. The entire affair was out of my control and in my favor.

The plane took off and I received a tiny coffee, a large ham sandwich, and a cup of water for free. I was excited, agitated, nervous. I was hot, sweating. I watched the rest of Fargo, I had started the movie the night before Moira left because I was sad and dark movies and the mid-west comfort me oddly enough.

I felt almost normal, almost cool, as the credits floated up the screen and out of sight.

I spent two hours racing around that airport with an obscene amount of clothing sweat-stuck to my body—sweating, SWEATING—centimeters (because we are in Brasil) away from tears.

I was in the air for a total of 37 minutes.


When I shut my laptop as the plane landed, I realized that my grant had finally begun. I was going to meet all the other English teachers. I was going to stay at one of the finest hotels in Brazil, the Pestana: the location of the 2017 Fulbright ETA/researcher orientation.

When I walked through the doors it was hot.

You see, air conditioning is very uncommon in Brazil. Melting is much more common. Banks, some hospitals, maybe the suites in a few swanky hotels with a view have air conditioning.

I would later spend 3 hours in the air conditioned bathroom of my hotel room: showering with hot water, shaving all of the hair off my body, moisturizing, painting my nails, putting tooth paste on all of my pimples, leisurely pooping—you know, the things girls do in private that I couldn’t do in a hostel in a co-ed bathroom with 3 toilets and 3 showers shared by 14 people over the course of 20 days.

I arrived at the Pestana around noon. They wouldn’t offer any of us teachers a room until 2 pm.

I saw my co-teacher sprawled across the lobby couch. I recognized her from her Facebook photos. In person she looked even more beautiful and quite exhausted. Her airline had lost all of her checked luggage in México.

We went for a light meal: salad and passion fruit juice.

São Paulo is much cooler than Rio, and so we sat outside, speaking in English. I learned quickly that my co is a professional teacher, a proud Mexican-American, and very sassy. I remember going to the bathroom after the meal and sighing with relief as I washed my face. I had wanted a partner I could respect and look up to, and I had gotten that. It didn’t hurt that she was sarcastic and blunt—I had no fear of offending her.

She’s strong.


The group of scholars who won the Fulbright grant this year is diverse: latinos, white Americans, black Americans, Indian Americans, people aged 21-35, researchers, people that speak little to zero Portuguese, people that speak perfect Portuguese, gay people, straight people, single people, people in long distance relationships, newly engaged people, married couples, people from the west coast, people from the east coast, muslims, christians, atheists, people from the mid-west, several people who reside in Kentucky, people from Idaho!

We were all there with the same title: Fulbright scholar.

Many of the people made me laugh out loud. Some people made me think hard and differently about the current political situation in the United States, about our self-segregation. I built up huge crushes on certain guys in a matter of days. I sat in meetings from 8 am to 5 pm for three days in a row. I dressed my best and was constantly complimented. My peers and colleagues hugged me as if they already knew me, and, during those brief hugs, I forgot I was a foreigner.

But we were all foreigners all the time, and we had to sit through a security briefing designed for foreigners. A female security agent from the State Department spoke with us about general safety in South America.

She communicated that Brazil is rated “Critical” in regards to crime.

“Critical” is the most acute type of crime a country can have.

Think of it this way: “Critical” is the most severe assessment the United States can give another country when our government officials/personalle travel through it.

Murder and other types of violence are relatively rampant, but, mostly, “crimes of opportunity” make Brazil a critical country: some guy stealing your purse, some 11 year old pick pocket, a nameless, faceless credit card thief: these people are a dime a dozen in Brazil, just as they are everywhere else.

“Don’t tell anyone anything they don’t need to know,” the agent said. “Give them whatever they want because they’ll hurt you, even if they don’t necessarily want to hurt you,” she said with a grave tone.”Don’t fight back; don’t refuse them what they ask,” she said. “That’s how you get shot.”

I wiped some sweat off my forehead as she said this, and turned to another Fulbright I had met up with in Rio the week before. My eyes were wide in genuine fear, and she was making a theatrical face, her eyes big, her hand placed above her brow, shielding her eyes from the agent.

I tried to suppress my laughter.

I made friends at the orientation, you know. That’s not common either. You don’t just make friends that you actually like and miss in such a small space of time. They were American, which may be why I was able to get to know them, call them friends. Or maybe it’s because we’re Fulbrights, or foreigners. . .I’m not sure.

Interestingly enough, I wasn’t approached by any Brazilian women in Rio or in São Paulo, at least not in person. I was approached by many American women at the orientation.

As I left the Pestana, I hoped I would make female Brazilian friends in my host city.

I hoped for that very much.


When my co and I arrived in Viçosa, a small city in the state of Minas Gerais, I was greeted by a driver and a student from the university I’ll be teaching in.

The student was tan, tall, skinny, with dark angular features and a big smile. He was talkative, friendly, informative, inquisitive,  very pretty brown eyes. His English was impressive.

I liked him immediately.

During the four hour car ride, I shared with him some of my more devious behaviors—like my tendency to take things from hotels. . .

He laughed.

“You’re one of my crew,” he said and wagged his finger at me.

I remember talking softly to him as my co slept in the car.

He interrupted me.

“I like the tone of your voice,” he said. “It brings peace.”

He speaks to me frequently in Portuguese now, and I don’t understand much of what he says. But I love that he says it to me in Portuguese, as if he assumes that one day I’ll understand.

He took me up to my apartment in downtown Viçosa, centro, for the first time. He is very close to my roommate. When I got to the apartment, she hugged me. She had baked mini pizzas for me (friggin delicious). She’s very pretty: big dark eyes, milky skin, long light brown hair. She has a sly sense of humor. She’s sweet and soft, but she’ll call you out subtly among a large group for something you forgot you mentioned to her, like snatching towels and a pillow from a hotel.

She took me to buy an oscillating fan (a necessity); she took me to the grocery store. She tells me everything I need to know. She invites me everywhere.

She includes me, and she doesn’t yet know me.

That’s how Brazilians are: they scoop you up and carry you everywhere you need to go and give you the love that a normal US citizen takes years and years to create within an inter-american friendship.

Brazilians are also quite hilarious. They like to laugh. They like to elevate the pitch of their voice when something cute or beautiful appears. They like to lean on one another at parties, nuzzle each other, twirl each other’s hair around their finger.

They love to eat.

My host professor took my co and I to lunch the day after we arrived. She was generous, funny, down to earth. Mind you this woman is one of the most famous scholars in Brazil. She is famosíssima in the academic world here. She has been the first to study an array of topics regarding teachers and their beliefs and emotions.

Another teacher from the university joined us. She was hilarious too. My host prof gave her a gift at the table, a little Frida Kahlo pillow. I realized then that they were super amigas, very good friends. Gift giving is very important in this culture, as is friendship.

We went to the other professor’s sister’s house. A big, beautiful house in Viçosa. White walls, semi oval shaped windows with stained glass, black and white art from the northeast on the walls. There was a jabuticaba tree in her backyard.

I remember looking at the tree, looking down at its roots, and looking up again to see both of my middle aged professors nearly at the top of the tree in a matter of seconds, picking the fruit.

Brazilians are quick and the fruit is delicious.

Later that night I got violently ill in my immaculate bathroom. I was nauseous for hours, and then, quite suddenly, I vomited all of my lunch and all of the fruit and immediately felt better.

Not every day can be perfect.

Sometimes a little vom balances things out.


I have violent nightmares each night.

I’m on another planet and its denizens want to eat me or steal all of my reais—a fully developed but abnormally small child clings to my body, choking me, it won’t let go—I see my love in the Shire happy with another woman who is less judgmental and sweeter, more natural around the young and the old—I’m running from a tall blue Gumbi like monster in a grocery store without an exit, all the signs in Portuguese.

I wake up in a sleep sweat.

I calm myself down and swim out to the sea of sleep again.

I wake up and it’s hot again.


The last few days here have been filled bureaucracy. Christina and I have to register with the Federal Police.That’s a bureaucratic bull ring, by God. There’s a ton of dodging and flapping a red cape and standing still for hours to achieve something quite senseless, like the death of the bull.

Imagine the back and forth at the airport and multiply that by 15 as you dub over everyone’s speech with rapid fire Portuguese.

If our roommates and professors didn’t help us with these processes, we would be lost.

I repeat: LOST.

There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, no one in Viçosa speaks English in public unless they are are a student of languages who happens to physically be with me or my co. Even then, it’s not exactly good fortune to find an English speaker, or to hear it off-campus.

When English is spoken in public, it’s excruciating.

Everyone stares as if I’m an alien, because I am.

I have never felt uncomfortable speaking my native language until now.

Today, in 2017, it is very important to remember that millions of people in the USA feel scared and targeted and freakish when they speak their native tongue.

It would be nice if our would accepted whatever language someone chooses to speak, or the only language someone can speak, as normal.

Still, the days and nights pass here despite the language barrier.

I’m meeting new female Brazilians every day that are so kind, and so loving, and so willing to dance and joke and offer me a glass of water and a bed whenever I need it.

It’s astonishing to say that I am not homesick.

I miss certain aspects of the States, sure.

The expensive ease of customer service, the cold, my ex who adores the cold and who always inhaled sharply, dramatically when the frozen popsicles I call my feet touched his, my family, my friends.

It’s crazy to think that I do not long for my bed.

I have a bed here. It’s very comfortable. The whirring fan next to it lulls me to sleep.

I do not long for the trees of New Hampshire or south Jersey. At least not yet.

The trees on my university’s campus are numerous and perfectly aligned.

The people are happy here, and they work hard to accommodate me when they don’t have to. The students arrive next month, after Carnaval, and I’ll finally start teaching.

I need that start. I need to work. I need to feel like I’m making this work, like I’m helping someone else, because maybe then I won’t feel so helpless.

I was very successful in the United States for a person of my age and means, and that’s both easy and hard to achieve. The United States of America is a country where, generally, everything works and no one helps you.

But here, in Brazil, in this tropical country filled with the scariest, funniest, most diverse, most hopeful, most hospitable people I have encountered in my 23 years of life, nothing works and everyone helps.

Today, during the three hours it took to pay one bill for the federal police, one of my new Brazilian girlfriends said something in good natured exasperation:

“Welcome to Brazil, ladies, where nothing works when you need it to.”

But Brazil is working for me, and, soon, I’ll be overwhelmingly proud to work for Brazil.

 

 

Christ the Redeemer and the Party Scene in Paradise

I saw Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

I saw Him from car windows, while walking around lagoons, in crowds, at night while waiting for Ubers to scoop me up and take me home.

He was always above me, looking down on me, on Rio—protecting us, protecting me, protecting Moira.

I thought that when I finally went to the monument on Corcovado mountain, I would have some profound experience, some larger than life vision: angels climbing up and down some golden ladder, me climbing up and down the ladder, angels wrestling  me for hours and hours on the ladder to see how badly I actually wanted to bridge the gap—how badly I actually wanted the blessing—my hip dislocated, my prayers answered.

When we visited the statue, everyone there treated Him like a tourist attraction. Selfies with arms outstretched—Him, still in the background.

There were black mats nailed to the concrete ground for the purpose of lying down and taking pictures of Christ.

Many people were taking pictures of the view of Rio from the mountain, including me.

He hadn’t seemed like a tourist attraction from below, from the ground. Looking up at Him, He seemed like something I could worship—not something I would see months later in the background of my selfie.

But I lied down; I took the pictures.

I was puzzled. Wasn’t this supposed to be like Mecca?

Was it less than I had imagined because I wasn’t religious? Was it because I was silly? Was it less because my imagination has always been more?

It was cool up there on the mountain: misty, cloudy. It was the first time I had felt cool outside in Rio de Janeiro. The clouds obscured the monument. When I glimpsed Him between all that white mist, He looked serious, concentrated—His mouth turned slightly downward in dissatisfaction.

Sad. Christ had always been hard to see, easy to miss—even though Homeboy is huge, and even though He has always been a monument in my life.

I constantly overlooked him. I still overlook him.

At that moment, that moment of seeing His dissatisfaction, and feeling my own acute dissatisfaction, I realized I wasn’t going to have much of a reaction at Corcovado mountain on January 31st, 2017: my 23rd birthday.

Eventually, I wandered into the small chapel inside of the statue. It was nothing special, probably the way Christ would have liked it. On the left side of the room, there was a small painting of Him on the cross. There were two sets of three rows of four velvet upholstered stools on either side of the room. There was an oscillating fan whirring in the space between the two sections.

I watched a young girl kneel before one of the stools, she put her elbows on the velvet and prayed. Another middle aged woman was crying. Adult men were walking in, dipping their fingers in the deep basins attached to the wall, making the sign of the cross on their bodies—their heads bowed in silence.

I bypassed the basins and stepped inside.

I closed my eyes.

I saw in a succession of three quick flashes—like an old black and white movie skipping from scene to scene on a projector—myself in a bed with white sheets in a room in a state I knew to be Washington, the outline of a small child in the doorway, the smell of coffee, a man’s voice far, far away.

Then: blackness.

Then: a thin cross.

I opened my eyes.

Bed—child in the doorway/smell of coffee/man’s voice—blackness/thin cross.

Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe it was my vision.

I shrugged, and we left the monument to eat something delicious in celebration of my birthday.

“I’m moving to Washington state when I get back to the US,” I told Moira in the tram on the way down the mountain. “Christ told me.”

“Nice,” she said with an understanding smile. “Nice.”

▽▽▽

We went to Paradise a few days later: Arraial do Cabo. A friend of ours, Ricardo from São Paulo—we met him in the hostel in Rio—invited us there. He insisted it was the most beautiful place he had ever been. He’d lived there for a month.

“It’s safe, it’s clean, it has the most beautiful beaches you will ever see,” he said in English, his Brazilianaccent strong.

It’s about three hours away from the city of Rio by bus. We were to meet Ricardo at the bus station in Arraial and lodge in a hostel of his recommendation for two nights, even though we had already paid to stay in our Rio hostel for that time frame. In addition to the hostel fees, we’d pay fees for a night-boat party and a 7 hour day-boat trip up and down the coast, plus transportation and food.

I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to spend the money. I didn’t want to be in the sun. I didn’t want to party. I didn’t want to be a tourist—to be on vacation any longer.  But, my travel partner, my best friend, wanted to go, and badly. How could I deny her the trip when I’d be here in Brazil for far longer than her?

Easily.

About a week into Rio I began feeling very anxious. I hated having to go and see things in the heat, having to interact in the heat. Every day a brick language barrier flew up before me, miles high. Eating was a struggle. Moving around was a struggle.

 All the sweat—the showers I had to take 3 times a day just to feel clean. I just wanted to lie in an air conditioned room, read books, write, watch movies.

Usually I like to run 5-6 miles a day. But in this heat, forget it.

F*&#ing forget it.

I got a migraine and a silent, prissy attitude when I tried to run in Rio last week.

But denying Moira wasn’t so easy in the end.

I love my friend.

She’s a great friend. She doesn’t have one judgmental cell in her body.

I remember at Pedra do Sal, Moira and I were speaking in English, and a young black guy with dreads down his back suddenly appeared before us and said in an aggressive, serious way:

“No, não. Yes, sim. When you are in Brasil, speak Portuguese,” he said, shaking his long black finger at us gravely before disappearing back into the crowd. He looked angry.

I thought he was xenophobic, rude, hateful.

Moira suggested something else: “Maybe he was warning us. Maybe he thought we would be safer if we didn’t speak English, didn’t make ourselves targets. Maybe he was looking out for us. I thought he seemed concerned—it’s dangerous here.”

I thought that going to Arraial to meet a man we had known for a week in Brazil was dangerous.

But, the physical location and the hostel were legitimate.

“It’ll be amazing!” Moira urged.

And so, we went to Arraial.

The town itself was small, calm. It reminded me of my home beach town in Jersey: crowded in the summer, silent in the winter, summer rentals everywhere, trees on the sidewalks bending in toward the streets, creating shade. Arraial is a peaceful shore town, just like any other. There are tons of young people, tons of families.

When we arrived at the A Coroa Hostel in Arraial, it was impressive.

Beautiful decorations.

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It was also spacious. It had three levels, with hammocks on each. Their breakfast actually included ham AND cheese, in addition to bread—that’s living large, people.

The hostel was run by a group of Argentinians. Spanish was the main language of the owners and the guests.

Tell you what, reader, I am RUSTY with the Español.

You’d think after taking it for 12 years, studying it in college, and living in Mexico for a month, I’d have a handle on it.

The truth is, I’ve let it go. I can understand it very well, but I respond in Portuguese.

I’ll have to live in a Spanish speaking country for awhile to remedy that. . .

Our first afternoon at A Coroa, we went for a ten minute walk to a beautiful beach with transparent water. No trash. Not heavily crowded. Rather than the several different peddlers you’d normally see every two minutes or so at Ipanema/Copacabana beach in Rio, you saw one woman dressed as a bumble bee selling water every half hour.

There was also the Argentinian empanada woman that day on the beach. She had a small baby at home. Her husband stayed with the child all day. She cooked hundreds of empanadas each morning, and sold them all on foot in the streets and on the beaches by the time noon rolled around. She would replenish her stock before 5 pm. She visited A Coroa regularly around 7 pm to sell the remainder.

I never swam in the water at that particular beach.

Ricardo went for a dip and came back, his eyes wide.

“Be very careful, there’s a LOT of  água-viva—I don’t know how you say in English,” he said and paused. “AH! Jellyfish! Watch out for them. Take care.”

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I laughed.

F*&k that. I’ll wait to swim during tonight’s boat party, I thought.

▽▽▽

Let me give you a scenario completely fabricated by yours truly, with no real basis in reality, that will give you a good idea of the difference between American drinkers and Brazilian drinkers. Imagine American Kanye West: drunk, off his Lexapro, high on several different substances. What does Kanye do? Well, he probably cancels his tour in the middle of a performance.

Now, the Brazilian version of Kanye West: drunk, off his Lexapro, high on several different substances, not only finishes his tour successfully and with grace, but he extends it for free and performs day and night without pause.

Brazilian Kanye doesn’t cancel the party, he prolongs the party.

Brazilians don’t stop and they don’t slop.

It’s a neverending festa.

The boat party was P o p p i n with a capital P—before the boat ever even left the dock.

When we came upon the boat, the bass from the speakers was vibrating throughout the marina, and young shirtless men were loading huge styrofoam trunks of ice, crates of beer, and bottles of liquor onto the boat.

They were helping young beautiful Brazilian and Argentinian women onto the boat.

These women were tan, thin, petite, their hair long, their smiles wide, their flat stomachs and toned thighs almost completely exposed. In Brazil, women of all shapes and sizes are content with their bodies. They showcase everything because everyone and everything is beautiful.

And then I was on the boat, the stars were stretched out above me, the sun had been asleep for hours. I was drunk. I remember being on the roof of the boat, looking up at the sky, my head tilted back. I was laughing.

The music was loud and American. EDM. We were tucked into some lagoon, hidden—out of sight. I could smell liquor, hear shouts, splashes, laughter. I could smell marijuana.

I was too happy to be in Brazil, celebrating life this way.

The Argentinian women had come around, throwing glitter on everything and everyone, including me, including Ricardo.

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I was so happy that I didn’t even mind the pitch black bathroom below, overflowing with piss—salt water and urine sloshing around on the floor, sliding out from underneath the lower cabin door.

There was a water slide on the boat, for slipping into the sea. I advised Moira to pee in the sea after a trip down the slide. She wouldn’t need toilet paper—something the bathroom didn’t have anyway.

You know, I was a little disappointed with the boat’s owner. He was wearing a speedo and indulged in far too much alcohol for someone responsible for steering the boat back to the marina. He kept trying to thrust—literally thrust—himself onto Moira.

He had a dark head of hair, his body was tan and smooth and completely hairless. Rather than a bulge in the middle of his speedo, he sported a small fold. His quads and biceps were too large for the rest of his body. . .

“Save her!” my Chilean and Argentinian friends kept saying to me.

Moira was having trouble detaching herself from his grip.

I intercepted him. “Hey, she has a boyfriend,” I said to the captain in Portuguese, my hand on his wrist.

This line almost always works in the US, because men often respect the idea of a man more than a physical woman by herself.

“So?” he said. “I have a girlfriend.” He tried attaching his mouth to hers.

Moira clearly was not feeling this guy. Her body language, her face—she was totally repulsed.

“Listen,” I said sternly. “She’s not interested. You’re scaring her.” I shook my pointer finger at him.

He backed off.

But, he tried again and again several times later that night.

None of the male friends we made on the boat would help.

“Good thing you stepped in!” a young Brazilian woman said.

“She has to do it herself,” one of the Chilean boys said to me. “We can’t say anything to him. He owns the boat and he’s drunk.”

“He’s also Brazilian!” an Argentinian boy chimed.

Social codes. 

I met a petite blonde Argentinian girl as the night ended. She asked me immediately what my sexual orientation was.

“Are you heterosexual, bisexual, or lesbiana?” she asked with deliberation, her Spanish quick and curt. “I must know!”

“Hmpf, bisexual,” I said in a Portuguese accent.

Her smile was mischievous.

Now, some facts: I have only ever been severely attracted to men; I have only been with men; I have only consciously fantasized about men.

But, I was drunk in Brazilian paradise.

To whom would I have to answer? To whom would I have to prove my sexuality? Who would I have to defend myself against?

Gay men and women know the answer to that question more than I ever will.

I can’t deny that I’m curious to know what it’s like to love a woman.

That small Argentinian put her arm around my waist as the boat docked.

I took down her number and mentioned my interaction with her on the boat to Moira in front of Ricardo.

“I knew it!” he said. He shook his finger at me, grinning: “I have a, how you say, gaydar!”

Moira and I looked at each other and laughed out loud.

I didn’t correct him. What did I care if someone thought I was gay or straight? What shame was their in wanting one anatomy over the other?

For all of you out there attracted to men, women in Brazil—no matter what country they come from in the world—are the most gorgeous I have ever seen. The physical appearance of these women alone is a spectacular, air tight argument for lesbianism!

But, alas, it’s the Adam’s apple, the angle of the shoulders, and the larger, stronger hands of men that make my tongue go numb momentarily. . .that make my stomach flutter after a look or between whispers.

My numb tongue, that flutter in my stomach: it’s a malady I can’t cure.

I wouldn’t want to.

▽▽▽

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The next day, our last in Arraial, we went cruising down the coast. I could go on and on about the trip: the natural beauty, the huge água-viva of the deep, the muscles we bought from a sea farm and grilled on the boat—we drenched them in lime juice before devouring them, the dancing, the snorkeling, the blue and muddy colored fish I observed through the goggles below me in the sea, the calm I felt when I heard my own breathing through that tube, the crackling and popping of the tiny shrimp and sea life I couldn’t see in the coral beneath the boat, the three men that jumped from such heights into cool, jelly fish infested water, the feeling of being on the bow of the boat as we careened up and down the backside of huge rolling waves.

No, I won’t go on and on.

I’ll just mention briefly the little white house on the northern cliffs that faced the sea, its sweet silent seclusion.

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I’ll mention the lonely light house on the southern cliffs.

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I’ll mention the sea cave I couldn’t photograph. I jumped off the boat in the middle of a tumultuous ocean to swim there.

For a moment, as I was swimming to the cave, I rolled over on my back. I let the sea carry me. I looked beyond the boat to the eastern island. Clouds and thick mist rolled over the peaks of the hills. The sky was gray.

I have never felt more exhilarated to be alive in my life.

The sea cave was dark. The air wasn’t dank, but fresh. Chico, another passenger on the trip, was hiding in the dark, pretending to be some unseen sea monster. His low growl was hysterical. He looked like Fabio.

The Brazilians brave enough to jump in and visit the sea cave were freezing: their lips purple—their limbs shaking—as we swam back to the boat.

“I HAVE NEVER BEEN MORE COLD IN MY LIFE,” a young woman said between chattering teeth as she climbed aboard.

The water couldn’t have been colder than 65 degrees.

But Moira and I were fine. We’re North Americans. The water was refreshing. I looked out over the hills as the sun set into a purple sea.

My travel buddy had been right, it was amazing.

▽▽▽

I write all of this in bed at my Rio hostel.

I’ve been sick since day 4 here in Brazil.

It’s now day 14.

First, the sickness came in the form of some nasty sinus infection, the kind that produces a thick-stinging-bright-green-blood streaked mucus in the back of your throat that you must force out or swallow.

Then it came in the form of fatigue.

Then it came in the form of diarrhea—loss of appetite quickly followed.

Then, today: a fever.

None of these symptoms have left me yet. They linger! LINGER.

Last night I face-timed my mother.

“Olivia, you don’t look good!” she said. “You need to rest!”

For some reason, I couldn’t stop laughing. 

Travel is not paradise. Neither is Brazil. It’s a beautiful country, but it’s not paradise. I’m not living abroad effortlessly.

I get sick and tired and annoyed abroad.

I have to budget abroad.

I had to exhaust the supply of cliff bars and fruit snacks that my mother bought me in the States before I even thought of spending money at the grocery store to obtain the five food groups.

It’s not always some fantastical journey of self discovery and fun when you travel in South America. It’s not perfect. Sometimes you don’t see God as easily as you thought you would.

Sometimes it’s not spiritual.

Sometimes it’s just spirits.

It’s hot and dangerous and uncomfortable at the same time that it’s exhilarating: the mist over the hills, the blue fish under the sea, the fever, the expensive Brazilian Tylenol, the sunburn, the homesickness, the yearning for your old love, the excitement of being alive in another country.

There’s no running away from your problems, dear reader.

There’s no paradise on Earth.

There’s just the sea and a few visions of a future that could be destined or imagined.

Or both.

▽▽▽

Unbeautiful Abroad: Carioca Men and the Samba Blossom

There’s a social phenomenon here in Rio that occurs every Monday: Roda de Samba da Pedra do Sal. Roda means ring, or circle. Pedra do Sal translates to Rock Salt.

The samba ring is located in the rock salt, a concentrated area of two or three blocks in what is known here in Rio as “Little Africa”. This meeting place is very near to a sea port and the square of Centro’s Saúde neighborhood.

Pedra do Sal used to be a slave market in Brazil’s early days.

“It’s a little embarrassing to admit,” said our Uber driver on the way there.

“It’s okay,” I said. “There were many, many slave markets in the United States—we’re embarrassed too.”

Pedra do Sal grew into a communal space for the oppressed African population, freed and escaped slaves alike. Certain Africans came together and infused their specific native African music with everyone else’s specific native African music. They did this in a new world and, thereby, created a new music, authentically Brazilian.

They created samba.

“It’s good that you’re going there, it is our history. You should see it. I have been there many times,” the driver said thoughtfully.

He looked at me through the rearview mirror as he spoke.

I’d like to say the size of the crowd was surprising when we arrived. It wasn’t. The south zone of Rio, where I’ve been living, is crowded, always. It’s like a packed outdoor concert everywhere you go.

When you imagine me here, imagine me in the context of a large crowd, weeding through people, laughing and sweating.

Some context: I speak Portuguese conversationally and logistically. What I mean by that is this: I can converse pretty profoundly with a Portuguese speaker. I can share my thoughts and dreams and beliefs. I can even make jokes. I can ask questions and understand, for the most part, someone else’s thoughts and dreams and beliefs. But this communication has to be one on one, face to face, without distraction or white noise. That’s conversational. I can ask for directions, opinions, for advice. Again, one on one, face to face. That’s logistic. Emergency Portuguese, as I like to call it.

But, in truth, much of the context of what people are saying is lost, and when people speak quickly or with slang, I smile and continue walking. When people talk amongst themselves, I’m lost. When people deny me items at the grocery store or the pharmacy, I don’t understand their explanations.

Still, between me and Moira, I speak the most Portuguese. This means that I order the food. I ask the questions. I make the phone-calls. I translate. I lead the way.

This is incredibly exhausting for a closet introvert like myself. I wonder how people like me do this sort of travel without a support system directly behind them. How do they remain calm without physical support?

Don’t misunderstand me. I could do all of this alone. I’m confident in that. But, how sweet to turn to a friend when something funny, or scary, or strange happens—to murmur something in English and be understood! How sweet to be able to rest on the comfort a friend from home inherently offers you.

I turned to Moira and smiled. We were there, experiencing samba in the same space in which it was created! The smell of fried food and beer was fierce. Laughter, shouts, and songs were floating above the mass of people.

Bom, boom, bom, bom, boom, bom. BOM, BOOM, BOM, BOM, BOOM, BOM, BOM. 

The drums seemed to be everywhere, but I couldn’t see a single instrument.

“Whaddya want?” I said to Moira.

She looked around, thought for a moment. “Heineken!”

We bought some beers and continued onward. There was a huge circus type tent with blue and white stripes over the area where the samba players gathered and played old African rhythms infused with the sounds of modern Brazilian life in 2017.

The area was set up like a makeshift arena. There were flat smooth rocks that created an inclination, and wide flat stone steps that ran alongside the large flat stones—up and away to darkness. Everything came down to the center of the space, a ring where the people were most concentrated, where the sound of samba blossomed.

People stood and stepped and sat on the stones. They were lined up against the wall the steps ran along, backs flat against its uneven surface.  I remember thinking that I needed to have my back against that wall to feel normal in this crowd.

I like to watch others, to observe others, to converse with myself. I saw an open space on the steps and I led Moira there. We settled and waited.

There was a woman selling magic brownies next to us. People filed past us up the steps.

“Don’t worry,” I told her before we left the hostel for Pedra do Sal. “We’ll meet loads of  people tonight.”

But there was no way we could have possibly acquainted ourselves with all of those people!

People selling beers, people selling salty barbecue, people dancing—pouring out onto the streets in uniform dance—the bass strong. Young brown men and women were carrying huge shallow wooden trays of chewing gum, a thick leather strap fastened around their necks. They were resting the back of the tray on their solar plexus. They draped their hands over the front edges of the tray. They were shouting out their products’ names mindlessly. They were walking up and down the stone steps, their heads somewhere else as they attempted to sell small white squares to freshen the breath of an enormous group of people, multicolored, here at Pedra do Sal.

Moira and I dressed for this occasion. We heard it was a sight to see. We both looked beautiful.

Early in the night, a middle aged black man found his way next to me. We talked, he soon realized I was a foreigner. We talked a bit about my country; we talked a bit about Brazil. He spoke to Moira for a few minutes. Soon he became flirtatious with me, and I became cold. In no time, a group of younger Brazilian boys began congregating next to Moira. I made social moves to freeze out the older man.

One of the young men began speaking to Moira. He had grayish blue eyes, the edges of his facial hair, closest to his under lip, along with his eyebrows, were stained blonde from the sun. He was handsome. I could tell he knew he was handsome.

Moira looked at me and laughed with surprise, discomfort, exhilaration.

“She doesn’t speak Portuguese,” I said in a friendly way.

“Oh,” he said. “What does she speak?”

“Ingles,” I said.

He looked very pleased. He smiled at her in a sentimental way, as if he knew her well.

“I speak English,” he said with a sly grin. He had his elbow on the wall next to her. He was leaning on it, and into her personal space.

I continued to look out at the crowd as my friend made a new friend. I was included in their conversation, in a polite mandatory way. None of the men in that particular group had any real interest in me as a potential date for the night, and so no real interest in me at all. They didn’t speak to me very much.

The boys talked amongst themselves off and on, laughing, speaking Portuguese closely together. They were eyeing Moira.

I made eye contact with one of them, and held the gaze. I was asking him what exactly they were talking about with my gaze.

“We are talking about your friend,” he said. “We are talking about how beautiful she is,” he explained. “—You are beautiful too,” he added politely.

This is normal in Rio, my being overlooked.

I’m not offended.

I’m not ugly here; I’m just unbeautiful.

This is also generally true in the United States. I’m not your signature “hot girl.” Men don’t lust after me/chase after me/become obsessed with me. If they do, they do it quietly and when we know each other well. For example, in both of the long term relationships I’ve had as an adult woman—I had no idea either of the men looked at me in a sexual way, or any way, until 6 months after knowing them.

Don’t get it twisted. I’m not downplaying my physical appearance. I’m not fishing for praise. I’m not throwing a pity party in Rio.

I’m telling the truth.

There was a time, briefly, in high school, when I weighed 35 pounds less than I do now. I’m not naturally thin or petite. My family used to call me Flat Stanley. They thought I had an exercise disorder. My friend Edward called me an emaciated Holocaust survivor.

I was running 6-7 miles a day, and, in addition, burning upwards of 1,000 calories at the gym 5/7 days of the week. I ate a ton because I burned a ton. My hair was deliciously long, and men chased after me. I was addicted to a type of attention that I had never had from the opposite sex before that point.

Now, I’m 35 pounds heavier, my hair is short, and I notice a distinct difference in the way men approach me, speak to me, love me—mainly because it’s uncommon for me to be approached, to be spoken to in a way that indicates attraction, to be loved.

I miss my obsessive exercise.

People sometimes see old photographs of me from that time.

“Look how skinny you were, Liv!”

“Look at how long your hair was. It looked so good!”

“How different you look now! That’s another person!”

I miss feeling so thin that I could turn sideways and flatten out into invisibility.

Oh, Stanley. Where did you go?

It’s strange. Everyone told me before I came to Brazil that I was going to fall in love here. That I was going to marry a Brazilian man. That Brazilian men were going to love me.

Up until that night at Pedra do Sal, young Brazilian men in Rio did speak to me directly, but out of curiosity and platonic friendliness. And of course, to speak to Moira through me.

Before I brushed off middle aged black guy, he told me that people no longer come to Pedra do Sal for samba—”Well, some people do,” and he pointed to the bottom of the arena, the samba blossom.

People were crowded around the blossom—they were the blossom, moving as a unit to the beat around some invisible samba center. It looked like they were partaking in some ancient ritual. That was what I wish I had done—where I wish I had been that night.

I wish I had been the blossom.

“But most,” middle aged black guy continued to say “come to Pedra do Sal to talk and to drink.”

I looked over to see Gabriel, the blue eyed Carioca Casanova, attacking Moira’s face with his mouth. When he came up for air, I tugged on Moira’s arm.

“Are you okay?” I said. “I can tell him to stop if you don’t like it.”

Gabriel was introducing Moira to his friends as the “love of my life.”

She shrugged. “I’m okay.”

Hey. If homegirl is cool with it, I’m cool with it.

Some people are comfortable with different things. Equality and understanding is about both men and women respecting a woman’s preferences.

Soon Gabriel and his friends disappeared, and three handsome younger black men replaced them. I spoke with one in Portuguese, Wallace, for a bit. Then he turned his attention to Moira.

“She doesn’t speak very much Portuguese, only English” I said.

“I speak some English,” Wallace said with a smile.

Soon they were communicating in broken English and shattered Portuguese and they had moved farther away from me.

I looked over at one of Wallace’s friends beside me. He was observing the people in the same way that I was. He had a beer in his hand, and I could tell he was studying the drums, the rhythm.

“You know, I always start my week off here,” he said without looking at me. “Start the week off right: with music.”

His name was Thiago, or James in the US. His skin was light and he identified as black. His father dipped out the same way mine had.

“That’s common here,” he said. “A fatherless Brazil is the real Brazil.”

He looked 25. He was 33. He was ten years old and had a father that seemed more like a stranger than a family member when I was born.

He had quit his office job to pursue music.

Our histories were the same. The two real differences: he was undoubtly black and undoubtably a Brazilian man.

I was an American woman and since I was little, my family had always reminded me, encouraged me, that I didn’t look black, that I looked nothing like my black father, and everything like my white mother.

“You know,” he said deep into the conversation about our heritages, “I can tell your mother is quite beautiful.”

He surprised me with his subtlety. He flirted intelligently.

“Subtlety,” I had said to him early on. “Subtlety indicates intelligence and self control, the best qualities in a human being.”

Self control.

I receive immense pleasure from self control. Controlling my breathing when I run, controlling my diet during that time as a teenager when a strong gust of wind could have blown me down, controlling who touches me—abstinence.

Some Brazilian men in the city of Rio de Janeiro—the majority that approach Moira for her beauty and me for my services as a translator—are not subtle.

They do not practice self control.

They are aggressive and pushy, and this is very hard for me to process and to accept without a hardened look and a standoffish demeanor, without feeling very annoyed.

Carioca sexism is blatant. It’s not like in the United States, where sexism is insidious and permeates the social soil, where our actions, love lives, education, and dreams are grown.

In the USA, a woman will question her sanity, if she is “crazy” or not, when a man practices indirect, passive aggressive sexism: the American norm.

Here in Rio, men will kiss and touch you outright. It’s easy to identify sexism here. Men will tell you exactly what they think of your body and your face right off the bat—that is, if it’s pleasing to them.

I wondered, then, why this wasn’t happening to me.

If kissing and touching here is normal behavior for beautiful women to experience, why was I not being kissed and touched—or even acknowledged—if not that I am unattractive or not attractive enough?

Because, deep down near my brainstem, I know I’m beautiful, sexy—unforgettable.

I consulted a Carioca female pen pal I had made online.

“What’s the deal?” I asked her. “Am I not attractive here or?”

“You probably don’t look/sound vulnerable enough to be kissed or fondled,” she explained.

I wonder if this hard exterior of mine comes from a place of fear.

I wonder if I fear men? I also wonder if I have come to believe in my heart that men, after a conversation, or a look, expect things from women that women have never offered.

There was this one tall white, Brazilian boy, leading his girlfriend by the hand up the stairs of Pedra do Sal, who looked at me with such unfettered sexual lust and entitlement, that I had to avert his gaze. It was too heavy a gaze to hold. I’ll never forget that look.

He disappeared, too.

The men here, they come and go, talking of Michelangelo. . .

Just before our Uber came, Thiago gave me his number and kissed me twice on each cheek—excessive in the states, conservative in Rio.

Wallace attacked Moira’s face.

And then an Uber whisked us away, and the night of samba ended just as it began.

☀☀☀

“My friend awaits a message from your friend,” Wallace said in a text to Moira a few days later.

I never messaged Thiago.

I won’t.

I’m going to São Paulo next week, and moving to Minas a week afterward. I’m not here to meet men or to fall in love with a Brazilian for the three weeks time I’ll be in Rio.

I do wonder why people expect this of me.

☀☀☀

I turned 23 that night at Pedra do Sal.

I couldn’t help but think of my father, and where he had been on his 23rd birthday—where one of our African relatives had been on their 23rd birthday hundreds of years ago.

I told the Uber driver that it was my birthday, and he held his hand out to me as he drove.

“WOW! Parabéns!”

“Thank you, thank you,” I said with a devious grin.

I could feel his eyes on our backs as we walked to the hostel door. He put the car in park, waited for the hostel doors to open.

I knew he was waiting to make sure we got into the building safely.

I knew that he would not have waited for us to enter the hostel had we been two young men.

I looked behind my shoulder back at the driver as Moira and I walked through the doorway.

He looked back at me with a gaze as if to say:

“Congratulations! Congratulations to you for being young and beautiful here in Brazil.”

When I fell asleep that night, I did not feel my beauty or my youth deserved verbal recognition, or some congratulatory remark. These things were not accomplishments. I didn’t work to achieve my birth date or my facial structure.

I fell head first into sleep knowing that the only thing I deserved recognition for was my resilience, my ability to be unbeautiful abroad with a devious grin.

☀☀☀

Humiliation, Perspiration, and Redemption in Rio de Janeiro

The Florida friends my mother and I visited have been married for 30 some years. They’re artists. He surfs. She writes. They’re the most spiritual people I know. They understand—in the grittiest, harshest, cruelest, deepest way—the cruciality of Christ and His components.

As I left them, I hugged her, asked her to pray that I find faith in the Lord again. I lost it awhile back.

For me, losing faith doesn’t necessarily mean that you stop believing in the existence of God. I’ve cast fishing nets into the deepest waters of my heart, and I have never dragged up the dense, poisonous, resilient creature of disbelief—despite what I have told others. No, for me, losing faith isn’t rejecting God’s existence, it’s rejecting the importance of God’s existence.

My friend said she’d pray.

Boarding the plane from Florida to Houston five days ago I didn’t have one anxious thought in my head, not one anxious feeling in my heart.

When I sat down, my space was cramped. (I like my space) I was tucked into a window seat. (I hate being tucked) I sprawl! The attendant soon announced that the cabin doors had been sealed. Soon the engine rumbled. Soon the plane was shaking, making a sound like a giant microwave, set to high for one concentrated minute: that whirring sonic radiating heat. Soon, all the dangers a woman faces in a city, in North America, in South America, in the world, began to race through my mind. “This is a one way flight,” I thought to myself. My heart was in the base of my throat—fluttering—considering a quick flight away from me and the plane.

Suddenly, I was in the air and realized there was a beautiful Indian woman sitting next to me. She laid her head down on her tray and shut her eyes. Outside the window and below, lights flickered and sparkled, some moved with the plane: tiny cars. The woman’s thick black hair spilled onto my lap when I realized it.

It: I had loved and been loved. And that was everything and the residual too. If my heart left me, if I died—I had loved and been loved. I had lived the adventure. And isn’t loving the adventure? Isn’t that why we’re ripped from the dark peace of nothingness into this world?

I woke up from that first flight with my head on Indian beauty’s shoulder. Somehow my hair had come undone as I slept.

When I boarded the second plane, the ten hour stretch to Brazil from Houston, my heart was serious about abandoning me. It was fighting its way to my lips from the back of my mouth, ready for take off.

I didn’t have a thought to match the anxiety. I felt I was going to die; I didn’t think it.

The calm, confident version of myself appeared in my mind. She cares for me, is healthy for me, hopes and roots for me, writes poetry with me, picks me out among the crowd— from the sea. She detects, files, and deletes my fears with the precision of a machine. She’s my girl.

(“you’re panicking,” said my girl. “breathe deeply and

try to relax.”

“I’m not panicking,” I said. “death doesn’t

mean shit to me. this is coming from some

place that I don’t understand.”)

In the height of this, my first panic attack, United airlines texted me. My flight was delayed for “maintenance”.

I don’t mind, I thought. (My heart on my tongue!) Maintain that bastard! Maintain it! It has to float for ten hours (shivering, quivering heart!)!

Had I loved enough? Would I see him again? Would I forgive myself if someone hurt me? Had I written enough? Had I written it all down? Would my daughters read it? Would anyone read it? Had I written it down?

“Hush,” said my girl. “Have faith in God

who smuggled you into life

who will smuggle you out of death.

Have faith in the Xanax

you smuggled

and dream yourself to Rio.”

One small white pill later, I woke up from some shimmering haze.  Everything was unfiltered turquoise, including my mood.

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The light, the windows through which the light floated, the movies playing silently on the screens of the turquoise strangers who occupied the same turquoise space in the sky as I did, my hands, the seats, my blanket: e v e r t h i n g, turquoise. I closed my eyes again–swimming through some calm turquoise ocean to my love on our little island. There he was, I reached out and he touched—”Good morning ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be landing soon in Rio de Janeiro, it’s 78 degrees and cloudy. . Please come see us again!”

My turquoise haze seemed to pixelate to normalcy and nausea set in.

The airport was this masterpiece of people. Everyone looked like they came from all over the globe and everyone was speaking Portuguese. There was a black man whizzing around on an airport cart carrying one very large person and one very old person. He was recreating the sound of a car horn with his mouth: “Beep! Beep, beep!”

Airport security personnel were rolling past me in roller skates. Men who wanted to saran wrap my baggage, people looking to flag you down a taxi, lost Americans navigating the airport to no avail, their luggage stacked on huge, rolling metal carts.

The hour of Rio had chimed.

When Moira and I first arrived at our hostel, I immediately asked the receptionist in Portuguese if he spoke English.

“Of course,” he said with a smile.

There was a skinny, but muscular black man on his laptop sitting in a seat under the front window. He looked at us and all of my bags and laughed. He said something to the receptionist in Portuguese, and the receptionist nodded his head. The black man began to speak in perfect, British English.

“Hello, I’m Richard, I’m the chef here. Tonight I’m making curried chicken for dinner. It’s very cheap and it’s going to be delicious. Let me help you with your bags.”

WILD CARD! The people in Brazil, foreigners and nationals alike, are surprising wildcards.

Richard is interesting. He’s from London, but lived in Manchester until he moved to Brazil to “take it easy.” He worked a prestigious managerial position for Manchester United’s club kitchen. He doesn’t drink liquor. He loves to cook. His mother’s name was Olivia, called Olive. He told me it wasn’t until she died that he realized her name was Olivia—it was only then that everyone said her full name, O-liv-i-a. He sleeps above me.

There’s Luciano. A 30 some old Brazilian from the country side who sleeps in the Itacoa dorm with us. His daughter, Olivia, is 7, she lives in Massachusetts with her mother. He’s friendly, insists on ordering our drinks for us, paying for us, reminding us that we can’t be left alone.

Ricardo has a daughter who’s 18. I’m not sure what her name is. He’s shorter, bald, energetic, incredibly friendly, generous, loud, and open minded. He loves to party. He showed us the finest beaches, took us out for drinks in Lapa (the party district), gave us coxhinas to try for the first time.

Leandro is 31, Argentinian. He used to be a lawyer. He left his long time girlfriend and the law awhile back to travel. According to him,  “the best country in the world” is Brazil.

Luciano speaks English to Ricardo when us girls are included in the conversation. Ricardo speaks Portuguese to both Luciano and Leandro when we’re included in the conversation and even when we’re not. Leandro speaks English to me and to Ricardo when he has exhausted his Portuguese. They all speak English well.

I’m trying to speak Portuguese to my friends, without much luck. We instantly revert to English. If not, we’d lose Moira, and I would be in a constant process of disorientation and understanding. Part of me would rather be disoriented until I’m oriented. I feel this strange sense of guilt speaking English.

We’ve been to the grocery store, to the market, to the beaches, in Ubers. Portuguese conversation happens in these places: when people are brushing past you in the aisles, when they put their hand on your shoulder while perusing the shelves to ask you your opinion of the pasta, when some adorable Brazilian child puts their hands on your shopping cart’s railing, and their mother scream at them and apologize to you in lengthy form.

A crowd always produces conversation here, and everywhere you go there’s a crowd. A man came up to me in the grocery and started talking about cheap mangoes and their ability to walk up and down the aisles. We, and forty other people were crowded around the produce section. I said: “That sounds good, seems like a good price for walking mangoes”. He smiled in confused good humor and walked away, muttering. 

Some Brazilians will smile at you upon the realization that you are not a native speaker, or a person who cannot speak Portuguese very well, like me. They will do their best to throw in English words they’ve heard over and over again in movies. They will slow their speech to accommodate you.

Others will take no notice of your inability to communicate, to understand. They speak with you like they would everyone else.

Some look annoyed, agitated, when it clicks that I’m a white tourist with a weak grip on their language. They become short with me. They say things to their friends or coworkers, and their friends or coworkers will stare at me. 

I understand very little and somehow I’ve managed to eat and get myself from A-Z in Rio. It’s an embarrassing, humiliating, exhilarating experience. I feel that heat of embarrassment and this discomfort in my shoulders, a tingling in my fingers, and I shrug it off. You can find me adjusting my shoulders if you look long enough, trying to shake off the awkwardness and discomfort I feel every day.

Some days it’s easy to do. Other days I fall asleep to the scent of flowers and sweat and wish that I was a different person, who could handle this city and its people with more grace and intelligence, with more humor and a sense of shamelessness.

We’ve made friends here who want to hang all the time. I like to hang, to listen, to laugh with them. But, really, I just want to write and walk around a garden by myself. I want to listen without being engaged, without having to do anything. This is a quality I’ve always had. Like this lone orchid I saw at the Jardim Botântico, I feel most beautiful when I’m alone and quiet, lost in my own thoughts, feeling like a photograph and a painting all at once: something real, something imagined. 

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“You know, I think it’s time to get out of bed!” Luciano says to us. I’m writing this blog. Moira is laughing at some off beat youtube video. We’re hiding from the heat, and I’m hiding from the world.

I tried Lapa night life, you know. It’s astounding. Hundreds of people on the streets, and hundreds more pouring out onto the streets every minute. Everything pulsates. There’s food, drink, singing, music, and young people everywhere. Hundreds of young, tatted, pierced Brazilians, just getting their drink on.

Leandro was so drunk he forgot his smart phone on the table of a bar where we were drinking. I scooped it and returned it to him as we left. He looked out from his drooping eyes at me, through this numb, drunken haze, and thanked me with a smile that you can use anywhere in the world to say “much appreciated”.

Alcohol and smoke makes me sick now, especially in this ungodly heat. It is HOT here. It’s in the high 90’s every day, and feels like 105. It’s humid. There’s rarely a breeze.

I take one sip of beer, or vodka mixed with coconut water in an actual coconut, and I’m whisked away on this psychedelic nausea trip that puts me on a tightrope of an Olympic balancing act between feeling good and feeling faint.

No, I’m not a fan of drinking. I don’t think I have been for quite some time. This lonely frog, etched into a tree trunk at the Jardim  brought me more satisfaction and fascination than alcohol ever has. Look at him!

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One night I was up late, writing downstairs in the hostel. I heard circus music and clapping. I climbed up and out onto the window’s ledge. There were no bars, no screen. There were five or six young people. Juggling, riding a unicycle. One girl was jumping onto moving cars, swinging from the hook line of a tow truck. She swung and jumped, landing on her feet like a cat. They were screaming, shouting, dancing carelessly to music pumping out of a boom box.

People don’t live in Rio de Janeiro. They preform in Rio de Janeiro.

Everything is a show, everything is a scene from some young, secret, unconscious playwright. That’s the culture, and there’s always a commentary. Everyone wants to be seen, no matter how ugly, fat, plain, or stunning they might be. Everyone wants to be scantily clad at the beach. Everyone wants to be stared at and admired. When I spent the day at the Jardim Botânico, even I, a person who prides herself on being unseen, felt this acute need to be photographed.

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As the days pass, I have more and more opportunities to see Rio from a car window. Sugarloaf mountain, the rampant graffiti everywhere bursting with color. Christ the Redeemer. I always see Christ the Redeemer.

On our first day here, we were traveling home from the Jardim, and this lighting storm was raging outside. The rain crashed down on the car we were in, and lightening crackled and struck around that enormous statue of Christ, as if He Himself in statue form was orchestrating the storm.

I felt I was on pilgrimage at that moment—that the only real reason I had come to this city, to Rio de Janeiro, was to see Christ. I’ve come to Mecca to circle the Kaaba, to touch it.

Have you ever felt so far from Christ, but so lucky to be within distance to see Him atop a mountain? It’s like seeing the most famous person in the world in a crowd across the street. You know him and you’ll never know him.

Part of me believes I’ll climb that mountain in the heat of the day, the sweat beads rolling down my body, soaking every square inch of my skin. Finally, I’ll reach the top, and I’ll fall to my knees.

I’ll say, “I’m sorry.”

My girl will say, “I’m sorry.”

He’ll say, “I’m the Redeemer. You are redeemed.”

I’ll touch that statue, I’ll touch His feet, and I’ll be able to speak perfect Portuguese. I’ll descend. And when I return to the city and speak with ease to everyone I see, I won’t rave about the miracles of Christ or the will of God.

I’ll say I climbed a mountain and a friend welcomed me to another world, that this sort of thing happens every day, that I was redeemed. Then, I’ll walk up the spiral steps of the hostel to my cool dark room, and rest awhile in a temporary bed.

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