Elizabeth Bishop, a person I admire, once lived in Brazil. She wrote a book about the country for the Life World Library. She fought with the publisher over points of style, and complained theatrically about it in letters to Robert Lowell. In the book, her affection for Brazil is plainly in evidence, as well as an eye for its excesses and injustices. “It seems that there should be a revolution every month or so,” she wrote. You have to be an outsider, sometimes, to see things as they are. But you have to be the kind of outsider who drinks the liquor and sleeps with the locals. She lived there twenty years, more or less, and did both.
She personally knew Clarice Lispector. “I suppose we are getting to be ‘friends,’ ” she wrote to Robert Lowell. “Her novels are not good.” Writers. The life made of art, and all that.
“Oh, tourist,” she wrote, in another context. By her own estimation, she spoke Portuguese “like a dog.” Some comfort in that, I suppose.
Marcos started sending me texts. I failed to inform my husband of the texts, which at first didn’t seem grievous; and then it did, and then Marcos suggested we meet. I asked what he had in mind. He wrote back: “Lunch, kisses.” Brazilians often signed off with “beijos,” but Marcos wrote the word in English. It altered the implication. He knew what he was doing.
Our rendezvous was set for an Italian restaurant, just off Avenida Faria Lima. Men in suits emerged from cars with the luxury items they were dating and handed the keys to valets, who ran here and there in sharp, practiced lines, like ball boys between points of a tennis match. I stepped inside and breathed cool, expensive air.
“This is where São Paulo businessmen bring their girlfriends,” Marcos said between touching my hip and kissing my cheek. I saw a young woman with a man who was more than trivially older. “So this is where you can see them in the wild,” I said. Marcos flicked his fingers in the direction of the waiter, and a moment later we had wine.
I could have said this was an English lesson over lunch. I didn’t expect to be questioned, but it was good to have a way of explaining the situation, to myself, among others.
Trying to think of things I didn’t know about him, I asked what Marcos’s parents did for a living.
“They own property,” he said.
It seemed polite to acknowledge the fact of his wife. “Supermarkets.”
Marcos named an expensive chain where I bought French butter and almond milk. He dipped a piece of fresh bread into the dish of olive oil on the table between us. As he chewed, he made a face of uncomplicated pleasure.
I said, “Can you tell me what my husband does?”
“Do you mean with other women?”
I wasn’t expecting that.
I said, “I mean actually what he does. His day. His job. I’ve never understood the nature of his work.”
Marcos dipped his bread again. More pleasure.
I said, “People ask me what my husband does. I act as though it’s inherently difficult to understand, that the fault isn’t mine, but I’m not an idiot. I could understand it if I wanted to. The truth is, I’ve never bothered to learn about his work. I’ve never paid attention. I don’t ask. The work he does—the work all of you do—bores me to death.”
He laughed and clutched at his heart as if I had reached across the table and lanced him with my salad fork. He really was quite handsome. When he was finished with this performance, he leaned across the table so that his nose was almost touching mine.
He said, “So tell me something that does not bore you.”
“Etymology,” I said.
Success—a word he didn’t know. It didn’t seem like cheating; the word for etymology in Portuguese is a cognate. From the Latin: cognatus, “of common descent.” He was unprepared for my style of flirtation.
Was I flirting? I wasn’t not. You can call almost anything flirting, though, just like you can call almost anyone a friend.
Here’s a tip, from my stint as a single woman in New York: if you’re going to flirt with someone reading a book by herself, you’d better be ready to talk about the book. She’ll be less than impressed if you ask her what she’s reading and then stare like an idiot when she says Coetzee.
“The protestors were dressed in Brazilian national jerseys as if going to a soccer match. The vendors were dressed in jerseys, too, and they walked through the crowds, calling out what they had for sale, monetizing outrage.”
I saw another protest march on TV. It was on Avenida Paulista, the Museum of Art, a Sunday afternoon. The museum is an enormous, elevated concrete shoebox standing on red concrete stilts, whose primary architectural advantage is to give the titillating impression that one day it will collapse and kill everyone standing beneath it. The building was conceived by Lina Bo Bardi, Brazil’s famous woman architect. Elizabeth Bishop’s lover during her time in Brazil was also a woman architect, but she was famous more for being Elizabeth Bishop’s lover than for being an architect. And for killing herself—pills, New York.
I wondered if Iara was at this protest. I had thought of calling her since having lunch with her husband, but always stopped myself. I didn’t call because I didn’t know what I would say. Telling her about Marcos seemed impossible, but speaking to her without telling her seemed impossible as well. Finally, I sent her a text message saying that I hoped her daughters were well, and she replied with a picture of the two of them dressed as princesses. I asked if she was going to the protest. There was a long delay before she responded. “What protest?” she wrote.
The protestors gathered under the Museum of Art and also in the avenue. Traffic was defeated in both directions. Already it was becoming corporate, co-opted; there were celebrities and local politicians on a dais, making speeches, polishing their brands. The police looked calm; they were getting the hang of it. So were the vendors. They sold vuvuzelas, Brazilian flags, tee shirts with slogans. The protestors were dressed in Brazilian national jerseys as if going to a soccer match. The vendors were dressed in jerseys, too, and they walked through the crowds, calling out what they had for sale, monetizing outrage. The weather was nice. I saw a sign in English: “Brazil is being raped by corruption.” Signs in English? The intended audience wasn’t Brazilian. The audience was CNN.
Change—after all this time no one had a better explanation for what the protestors wanted. But who doesn’t want change? My husband was right: it’s meaningless to demand only change. Everyone wants x but eventually finds herself wanting y, and then, before long, z.
“No one thinks it’s going to go any further. The company’s too big for this to become more serious than it has to be.”
“So they were stealing.”
“They were stealing so that they could pay bribes to politicians who would allow them to continue making money so that they could continue stealing and thus continue paying bribes.”
“Is your bank going to lose money?”
“We have a position in the company. We’re somewhat exposed. We’re waiting on the outcome of the investigation.”
“Right now it sounds like you’re reading from your talking points.”
“It’s a global investment bank. We have talking points.”
“Yes, we do.”
“So tell me something that isn’t a talking point.”
“The politicians take bribes so they can finance election campaigns and remain in office so they can continue collecting bribes to finance more campaigns. The companies have internal divisions specifically devoted to processing the payment of bribes.”
“No wonder people are protesting. The party in power is the party that does this?”
“Whatever party is in power is the party that does this. All the politicians from all the parties do this. When they’re in power, they steal, and when they’re out of power they open investigations.”
People sent e-mails. They asked about Brazil, about my life in Brazil. Sometimes I answered. I wrote about restaurants, about the tasting menus and the wine pairings. I wrote about what I knew of the country’s politics. The president’s popularity was in free fall, the elections were a year away. The party depended on the poor for votes. People asked about the protests. They’d read stories in the New York Times. It was the only thing they knew about what was happening in Brazil. I wrote about traffic and crime. In one e-mail, I described an exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The photographer was a German Jew who had left Berlin in 1939 and landed in São Paulo. He became successful as a commercial photographer and made beautiful black-and-white images of industrial plants, Mercedes-Benz dealerships, adding machines. The exhibition included some of his early work. Before leaving Berlin, the photographer, when he knew he had no choice but to go into exile, took pictures of the lampposts and streetlights. This made perfect sense to me.
I saw the prostitute who lived in her car. I hadn’t seen her in a while. I’m sick, she said. I offered her some money. I’m leaving here, I’m going home, she said. I asked where home was. I’m going home to die, she said.
My husband’s hours at work grew even longer, and when he finally came home, the situation there lingered as a source of anxiety. I asked him about it. “Market conditions,” he said. I asked what he meant. “I mean the way of doing business here,” he said. “I’m tired,” he said. “This fucking place,” he said.
Hannah said, “Emmanuel came back from the American consulate this morning. He was so upset. ‘They say I am not qualified!’ He paid one hundred sixty dollars for a three-minute interview. He told the consular officer where he works, how long he’s been in Brazil, how much money he makes, where his family is. And then he said he wanted to visit Disney for a week. Disney, because he knows that’s what the Brazilians say. And I said, ‘You’re telling them you want to go for tourism, but you’re obviously not a tourist, of course you didn’t get a visa.’ I realized that I sounded just like the consular officer. I felt awful. He said, ‘So how am I supposed to go?’ ”
“He seemed to think the decision would be overturned if he could get me to say he was qualified for the visa. People always plead their case with you after the fact, even though you can’t do anything about it. Everyone just wants somebody else to say he’s right. Mackenson, Nadège, Frantz, Robenson, Cassandra, Wilguens, Mardochée—they all go to the consulate to be refused. The irony is that they have a better deal here than they would in America. They get papers here. They get health care. They must know it’s hopeless. But they go anyway. They save up their hundred sixty dollars and they go. They can’t even say why they want to go to America. They just want to go. Somehow they still believe in it, the myth, streets paved with gold.”
“I get it. It’s arbitrary that I was born in a rich country and they were born in a poor country. It’s not fair. Americans don’t try to sneak into Haiti. So I get it. Being at the bottom in America is a hundred times better than being at the bottom in Brazil, a thousand times better than being at the bottom in Haiti. I get it. But if you opened the borders, you would have literally half a billion people trying to get into the country. Is there a single person in Haiti who wouldn’t come to America? These guys have a good situation in Brazil, and yet instead of making a life here, they’re trying to get to America. Once upon a time I would have read about Haitian immigrants and I would have wanted to help them all. I would have been so angry at the politicians who want to keep everybody out. And now—but I get it. Fuck. I feel like that Republican senator who found out his son was gay and suddenly had to be O.K. with gay marriage.”
“Airports force you into a set of tasks requiring concentration inside a cinema of distraction; and Brazil’s airports were lousy with low-level criminal activity.”
Hannah would leave Brazil soon and return to Los Angeles. She had a dissertation to write and a C.V. to monetize. She had parents who wanted to see their daughter. We were in the church kitchen, where we often were when we talked about the men and women we helped, or tried to help. I had never seen Hannah like this. I thought of her as a young woman, though she was, in fact, a bit older than I.
“Do you think you’ll ever have children?” I asked, surprising myself as much as I surprised Hannah by the question.
I read an article in the metro section about rising crime in the poor parts of the city. The article told the story of a couple in an outlying neighborhood who robbed the same pharmacy on three consecutive Sundays. They took diapers, formula, and the cash in the register. On the fourth Sunday they broke with the pattern and hit another pharmacy—but it was on the same street, and the man was shot dead by police.
We had plans for another trip. We had the tickets, reservations. Then my husband canceled at the last minute—work, what else. We were supposed to visit a preserved colonial city in the hills of central Brazil called Ouro Preto. Elizabeth Bishop once lived there; her house still stood. I was disappointed. I had wanted to see it. My husband said I should go on without him.
He was at the office already when I took a taxi to the airport. Navigating an airport solo, without my husband—it was the first time in years I had traveled alone. The airport was different without him. Airports force you into a set of tasks requiring concentration inside a cinema of distraction; and Brazil’s airports were lousy with low-level criminal activity. Traveling with my husband, I could divide the required tasks, and in fact it was he who typically steered us through them. Now I was stepping toward the bag drop before I had my boarding pass. I wasn’t following procedure. There were signs behind the counters about an airport tax that I’d never noticed before. I decided not to ask anyone about it. I could see that there was in our marriage something of a protector-protectee dynamic. There were aspects of the world that, because of my husband, I had the luxury of not paying attention to. It occurred to me that marriage is another thing you can describe as nonlinear.
“At least I know you aren’t having an affair,” my husband said, before I went away on my own, a joke.
When you study a foreign language, among the first words you learn are mother, father, husband, wife. They are the words that organize relations, unremarkable outside the context of your own life. But once I was married, two of these words, wife and husband, suddenly took on a new, strange vibrancy. I was somebody’s wife. My husband was my husband. I felt something in my skin, even my heart—a feeling between elation and alarm—when I heard myself using these most basic terms, husband and wife, which seemed like things that did not belong to me.
Do you mean with other women? Marcos had said.
Flying for miles over the hard tundra of clouds that separated the plane from the world below. A storm. On descent, the turbulence grew fierce, and I was queasy, which was unusual for me, and unusually anxious; the state of the plane felt perilous. I tried to control my anxiety with a rehearsal of the basic physics that kept an airplane afloat on air, but I was unconvinced. I studied the flight attendants’ faces, calm, even bored; but their performance of normalcy, as they wheeled the drinks cart down the aisle, didn’t reassure me. From where had come this urgency to visit Elizabeth Bishop’s house? I could have waited until my husband was free to join me; we could have changed the tickets. Instead, we had conspired to be apart for a few days. There was a dark thought I was trying to keep at bay as the airplane bucked and rumbled: I didn’t want to die yet because my life was not the life I wanted. Rain lashed the windows all through the descent, and the wing, the city below.
From Feast Days. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Ian MacKenzie.