Power and strength have drained away. The small fire that once burned in my chest, whispering like a fight trainer, went out. Don’t worry. You can do this. you’re better than the rest, it used to say. Now there’s only the pressure of emptiness. A hungry void pushes against by ribs. It screams in a foreign language. The squeals of electricity replace the hum of human language. I took a step off the curb and the ground disappeared. My hands shake and my muscles melt into a thick fluid. These legs, once coiled and mounded flesh, a secret power to leap into the clouds, to escape or to charge, quake beneath me. I imagine insects multiplying in my veins, their excrement turning blood to dish soap, bubbling like hot broth through a system of collapsing passageways. I am afraid of food and mosquitoes and the breeze. You must be still. You must rest. Orders from doctors in white coats, their answers and explanations unclear. It will take longer than you want it to. Best approximations. Plastic tubes deliver salts and juices into my veins. Maybe they will turn my skin from this gray to whatever color human is. Yes, yes. It’s working. I can feel it. I fill with the yellows and reds of life. The smooth stone that sits below my brain, between my ears, bringing balance, rolls back into place. But it’s only hope — the last thing to go. It turns to dust in the morning, when blue shafts of light burn through the windows and the cold of the floor tiles stings with truth. Sickness. Weakness. My new identity. Breaths are shallow, pulling more panic into my lungs than oxygen. My skin tingles. I will get through this day, I say again and again inside my head, rummaging through invisible cabinets for smiles to use as shields and jokes to distract from the dullness in my eyes. I eat large tablets. They leave a trail of chalk dust on my throat. Feeling better? Someone asks. Surviving, I reply, fixing a smile in place.
[Painting: The offering by Nikolaos Gyzis, 1886]
The fires of São João belch smoke into the sky over Pernambuco. Piles of wood burn in front of homes to signal the start of winter in the northeast of Brazil and the feast day of Saint John the Baptist. Forró music, heavy on accordion and specific to this corner of a vast country, mingles with the smoke. Its name comes from a jumbling of the English phrase For All. The sound blares from a stage in a square in front of an old church painted blue, a block from the infinity where ocean and moonlight meet. Low down in the backseat, behind the window of a moving car, this smoke fills my nostrils. It flies me away through the darkness to barbeques and family, to a summer thousands of miles away. The fires signify the miracle of life, and divine will, a time when an old woman became pregnant. Beyond childbearing years, Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist. The fires burn here, unattended, inviting neighbours and friends into homes to eat and drink. The fire of a tropical fever burns through my skin, the distances between myself and the ones I love exaggerated by weakness and fear.
Photo by Cristiano Nascimento, 2009]
The tide was coming in. Waves, angered by the full moon, crashed against the dark shadow of the reef. There were seven players on each team, sticks stuck into the moist sand for goals. No shoes. One team was bare-chested. The other wore shirts. Young boys from Recife, Brazil, the same ones the police chase away from the Boa Viagem promenade in the daytime. It’s their beach at night.
Rarely does fantasy hold up in the light of day. How good can they be here in Brazil I wondered. I know the game, I know football or soccer or futebol, and I know why we make myths. But it was the dream I’d always hoped it would be, the dream I was afraid to have smashed. The boys were that good. The ball was never lost. The fat one in the center of defence knew what to do. The skinny ones moved like bugs over the sand. The tough guys harassed and harried expertly, slyly. Where the waves licked the sand there was only the suggestion of out-of-bounds. Near the water’s edge, the tackles came harder and crashing bodies landed in heaps in knee-deep water. Cheers erupted when one boy scored a cushioned header from a long, looping cross, a goal good enough for any venue, even the brand new Arena Pernambuco an hour’s drive inland but a million miles away for these kids. The ball moved, not bothered by the bumps in the sand. When it bounced wrong and ended up in the ocean, the nearest boy scurried into the waves to retrieve it. The rest put their hands on their hips, chests rising and falling.
The water is full of sharks. Especially with the full moon. Especially at night. Maybe that’s how the boy, racing forward like lightning, lost his left hand and most of his forearm. The beach belongs to these boys. The full moon is their spotlight. First team to score twice wins. Then those waiting, juggling and showing off, cradling the ball between their shoulder blades and leaping in the air, take the field. It’s their turn now.
I walk away, peaking over my shoulder back at the game. I didn’t want to leave it. I didn’t want to miss something. Hell, I wanted to play. But I drifted toward the sounds, toward the smells and the lights of a church painted blue. I ate charred meat and fish from smoky stalls. I drank cold beer standing at a bar until my knees wobbled from exhaustion, from joy and melancholy, and from the nourishment of this world at certain angles and in certain light.
I’ve eaten meals with X on four continents. Born in Africa and raised in the south of France, he enjoys a good meal. He fusses about the wine and when something isn’t right, it goes back. But it’s not only about the food and the drink. The conversation and the laughter, that thing the Irish call craic, are as important. It’s an elusive sense of going in the right direction, an enjoyment hard to describe but deeply felt. Gossip and ball-breaking, nostalgia and old jokes retold. There is a point in certain meals with X when I know he’s a happy man. It might be the lobster or the small skewers of meat, or it might be something else, something less tangible. The tumblers line up. On those days, without fail, he reaches into his pocket, the table covered in glasses and crumbs, and says. I got this. You know it was a good meal when X flips through his wallet and pays the bill, and it has nothing at all to do with money. This happened a few nights ago, on Copacabana Beach, where the warm wind off the water lifted the corners of our paper tablecloth and the red wine from Chile sent our heads drifting into the damp clouds above. There were shrimp, cooked in hot oil and garlic, their shells thin and crispy. We crunched through the heads and legs too, leaving only a pile of sharp razor tails. So plentiful were the grilled and charred meats that followed, we left some beef on the plate. An offering.
[Image: Prawn by Arthur Bartholomew, 1891]
The crunch is like no other. It’s more of a crack, from teeth crushing a small stone hidden away inside a soft pile of beans and greens. It’s a reminder that the food comes from the earth is Nina’s generous response from across the table, said gently while she chews the rest of her fouled mouthful of white beans and escarole that I braised in garlic with tomato paste and olive oil. I hear the words in my ears but my brain his its own way. You didn’t do enough to clean those greens and you served something with dirt and earth in it. I hadn’t done enough. I’d violated a sacred and ancient law. I soaked the thick and bitter greens for hours and spun them around. I rinsed them under a firm stream of cold water. But there was so much grit, so much dirt and soil, that some remained behind, clinging to the lettuce. It required more. Individual inspection of each leaf. The small rocks burst between teeth like nothing you’d want in your mouth. It’s not a rough shard of black pepper or a large piece of coarse salt. It’s not the explosive and satisfying calcifications that pop inside the Parmigiano cheese grated atop. It’s dirt. It’s unpleasant. It breaks apart and softens into mud in your mouth. It’s also an accusation. I throw my bread down into the plate and can’t wait to leave the table. The meal has become, for me, an exercise in chewing. And waiting. For more cracks.
[Painting: Head of Escarole by Sophie Bearman. Date unknown.]
My grandfather’s face is down near the bottom. He’s surrounded by friends, men of similar age, from tiny Buti. The town, an hour from Florence on a train and thirty minutes from Pisa in a car, sits at the end of long and looping road. You don’t pass through Buti. You drive in and you drive out on that same road.
These men, all of them, were called to serve. They had no choice in the matter. They were beckoned by a lunatic who dreamed of reviving a fantasy of Ancient Rome, of striding through Africa a conqueror. He threw the young men of hundreds of towns like Buti, and cities like Roma and Milano, into the cannon’s mouth. He had his own manifest destiny and he slipped himself inside Hitler’s back pocket where it was nice and warm.
This record of the Butesi who served in Mussolini’s army once leaned on a ledge near my bed. The apartment was tiny, two rooms, so when I hosted couples I gave them my bed to sleep in while I took the couch. One of these guests turned the picture to the wall before clicking off the lamp. I can only assume they were offended by the fascist imagery, Il Duce, and the violence and death it suggested.
I said nothing the next day when I found the young men of Buti facing the wall. It offended me, but I said nothing. I said nothing, either, of how many of those men defected at the first opportunity. Or how many of them died, ground up like gravel in someone else’s bad dream, before they had the chance to run off. I spoke not a word to my friends about how men and women of the village climbed up into the green tiers and olive trees of Monte Serra to form the partisan brigades. How they challenged the occupying Germans and Italian fascists with guerilla raids and flimsy carbines. My friends went home not knowing how many of these local people, some of the faces they turned to the wall, were tortured and murdered when found in their hiding places.
I told them nothing about how my grandfather jumped out of an airplane, landed in hostile territory and cut himself loose from his parachute. He took off his uniform and traded it for rags, walking home many hundreds to miles to Buti. He walked and walked over the scorched and offended earth of his home, to the end of the road. To his home. On the way he gathered pieces of metal, scraps from spent casings and war debris, and twisted them into a ring. He offered it to my Nonna when he got to Buti, with a proposal of marriage.
I like to think it was then that my grandmother told my grandfather about the American soldier she hid under her bed. How she confronted and scolded a German, shaming and shooing him from her bedroom to keep that American safe.
Let’s go in this way. Dan insisted we use the bar’s back door. I tried to tell my friend from Romania that this wasn’t an entrance. It was for workers to take out the trash and smoke on their breaks. What’s the difference? he asked, shrugging, steam rising from his head. He was a large man. It was winter and we were chilled. Dan pulled on the door and slipped inside. He dodged a worker in an apron going the opposite way, accidentally knocking a pair of empty pint glasses from a ledge. They fell and crashed into a busing tray full of ice used to mix drinks and chill water. Every set of eyes behind the bar and the fire-spitting grille stopped what they were doing to stare daggers at us. The broken glass was identical to the shards of ice in the tub, and it disappeared and turned instantly into extra and aggravating labor. Can I help you guys? An irritated female voice asked. I felt my face reddening as I looked out at the barroom from an unfamiliar reversed angle. No, I don’t think we’ll stay, Dan said, unfazed. He bumped my shoulder. Let’s go. We walked out the same door. He shrugged it off. He disappeared one day from my life. I’ve lost track of how many years ago he left. I remember his friendship and his mischievous laugh, drinking liquor made from plums brought by his noisy mother when she visited from Bucharest. It smelled the same as the grappa my grandfather made when I was a boy. Dan had a love of good beer and food and talking soccer for hours beyond reason, late into the night. I remember a black-and-white photograph of Dan in military uniform, five-point star stitched to the front of his beret. He was a drafted soldier in Romania’s Red Army under the command of Nicolae Caucuescu, the same dictator who ordered the death of Dan’s father. Dan was barely 18 when the photo was taken. Caucuescu was eventually captured by soldiers once loyal to him, during the fiery uprisings of 1989. The dictator was killed by firing squad, alongside his wife, on Christmas Day.
[Photo: Romanians behind a tank during the 1989 uprisings known as Bloody Christmas. Photo credit: Unknown]