A stormy romance taught Stephen Bloom, an English-language reporter in São Paulo, all the Portuguese he never learned in school.
Brazilians know how to make noise.
I found this out firsthand after I rented a sleeping room atop a restaurant in a gritty neighborhood in São Paulo several years ago. The spirited contact of kitchen utensils with cups and plates can make for rousing syncopated rhythms, and each Saturday night, a pickup band of tabletop musicians would gather directly under my room. To their accompaniment, there’d be banging on tables and vigorous hand-slapping on lard buckets turned upside down into makeshift conga drums.
By midnight, just as the Tropic of Capricorn humidity would begin to drop and the city’s chemical haze rose, the mix of music, sweat, cigarette smoke, cheap perfume, cerveja (beer) and cachaça (the local firewater) would be enough to entice otherwise reserved women to take to the restaurant’s main floor. Many would abandon inhibition, peel off much of what was left of their clothing, and proceed to gyrate their hips in a steamy rendition of a get-down samba. Approving men and women would stand in a circle, swaying and clapping, while others would be locked in slow-motion embraces, dancing in darkened alcoves.
I found the whole scene mesmerizing and partook with gusto. One Saturday evening downstairs, over shots of cachaça, I met a dark-skinned woman by the name of Anna Elena from the coastal city of Fortaleza. Anna Elena was in her early 20s, with almond-shaped blue eyes, ebony hair pulled back tight into a ponytail, a perfectly oval face, and small sturdy feet set off by pink toenail polish. That night, she wore a short denim skirt and white cotton blouse tied in a knot just above her navel. We talked, and to ease our inhibitions, probably drank too much. Half-tipsy, half-elated, I took Anna Elena’s hand, suggesting we leave the pensão for a midnight stroll down rua Artur de Azevedo. I brought with me a quarter-full bottle of Pitú cachaça. Two blocks away, we found a stoop to a stucco apartment building and took draws from the bottle. A sliver of the moon illuminated, straight in front of us, two mangy but otherwise likeable dogs humping in the middle of the street.
“Vai!” I said to the co-joined dogs, and when they proceeded to do nothing but continue screwing, Anna Elena let loose a string of words that ended with “ow-wow.”
“Don’t you mean bow-wow?” I asked in Portuguese.
She most certainly did not. “De jeito nenhum!” Anna Elena said, explaining that the sound dogs make doesn’t resemble bow-wow at all. The closest approximation was ow-wow. Anna Elena was defiant, pursing her lips, canting her eyes so they were level with mine.
Then, without any warning, we both laughed hysterically. Here were two strangers debating the vagaries of North and South American canine sounds. We giggled, then hugged each other, more out of the absurdity of our drunken conversation than anything else. It was the first time I had laughed so heartily since arriving in Brazil four months earlier.
Carrying what was left in the bottle, we got up from the stoop, merrily waving goodbye to the dogs, and started back to the pensão, slowly walking, really sauntering, hand-in-hand, and after a half a block, we left the sidewalk in favor of the middle of the empty street. Anna Elena placed her hand on my elbow to steady herself, then bent down to unfasten her sandals, first the left, then the right. Walking barefoot, she slung the sandals over her shoulder, carrying them by their straps.
What was it about this moonlight? The light was different. Was it because I was in the Southern Hemisphere, that we were so far south of the Equator? The moon cast strange long shadows on the buildings, flat images, the likes of which I had never seen before. The façades, rooftops, steps, edges, and railings looked condensed and shrunken, caught in hazy, one-dimensional silhouettes. When I mentioned this to Anna Elena, she nodded and turned toward me. I wasn’t able to follow what she said next, but her cadence was comforting. My Portuguese, then, was too rudimentary to follow her, but I understood exactly what she meant.
We nodded in agreement and smiled, again pleased. I placed my arm around her waist, resting my hand atop her small hip. That’s when I noticed how Anna Elena walked—spine perfectly straight, shoulders and neck hardly moving. She seemed to be gliding, as though she was carrying a basket of fruit atop her head.
By the time we got back to the pensão, the restaurant had emptied, only a man and woman remained, dancing out front on the street, music-less, the grinding sounds of the city growing louder and louder to an inevitable roar by midmorning. The light from the now-sinking moon went from smoky silver to pewter as the sun, already hot, was about to rise.
Within days of that night, Anna Elena took to writing me notes, slipped under my door each morning as she left for work as a pedicurist at a salão de beleza in the Jardins section of São Paulo, where white women went to gossip and sip cafezinhos while Anna Elena filed dead skin from their callused heels. “Estou sentindo um calor intenso no meu interior” (“I’m feeling an intense heat inside me”), Anna Elena’s first letter to me read. “Em realidade, é um sentido muito bom.” (“In reality, it’s a wonderful feeling.”) There was a controlled gracefulness to her handwriting, and I grew to appreciate the care she took, especially with the elaborate loops of her Os and the energetic swirls of her Ss. She wrote on onionskin, bought from the corner stationer at 10 sheets per cruzeiro. She alternatively sprayed the curling pages with one of two atomizers so they smelled either of freesias or gardenias.
Our relationship charged full steam ahead, even though Anna Elena had no clue to explain my American ways, and from my perspective, I had a hard time figuring out her own. Why didn’t I carry a small leather purse to hold my wallet, keys, and documents (the way Brazilian men did)? I liked to eat breakfast, disliked cafezinho, and would get hungry if we waited till 10 p.m. to eat dinner. My T-shirts were baggy, not skin-tight, and I was tall (over six feet). That I was different in these and other ways led, I think, to a train-wreck kind of fascination that Anna Elena had with me.
Appearances aside, what came out of Anna Elena’s mouth is what slayed me. She spoke no English; her Portuguese sounded as foreign as it ought to have to a Californian who had just arrived in Brazil. Anna Elena was able to produce the most amazing variety of sounds that, strung together, resulted in a roller coaster of multi-syllabic words whose meanings I seldom knew. She’d hardly move her creamy lips, and suddenly, without warning, the words would float forth, exotic sounds that came from somewhere deep in the back of her throat. The words were chamois-soft, ticked by an accent that sounded like she was gargling. She spoke the way she inhaled Hollywood cigarettes (which she pronounced Hollyvudjee): She hardly took a breath, but proof was in the air, rising like hot smoke, the evidence suspended between us.
Brazilians had no idea how to pronounce my name. Every syllable in Portuguese is pronounced, so Steve came out sounding something like E-sti-ve. I liked the transformation, however ridiculous it sounded. I enjoyed listening to Anna Elena say my name with sincerity that a moniker like E-sti-ve in no way conferred. The most common of monosyllabic American names had been transmuted into a three-syllable word replete with punctured whooshes and swelling waves.
One English phrase that Anna Elena did know was Let’s go! (pronounced Lez-go!), which served the same purpose that Va-mos serves for Americans with no clue about anything else in Spanish. When Anna Elena suggested we leave my room at the pensão, a restaurant, the movies, she’d cheerfully shout “Lez-go!,” her black eyebrows shooting up in unison. It cracked up both of us.
Anna Elena knew another English word, big, and it too got expropriated into Portuguese with proximate meaning. One evening, when we were about to go over to her friend Graça’s apartment, Anna Elena’s blue eyes widened as she described Graça’s two-story apartment in a stately, old building overlooking Ibirapuera Park. Anna Elena rambled on about the apartment, calling it lindo, luxuoso, and then it came—big (pronounced BEEG-gay).
Lindo and luxuoso (pretty and luxurious), but BEEG-gay?
“BEEG-gay,” Anna Elena said, giggling. A BEEG-gay apartment, a BEEG-gay steak, a BEEG-gay car meant huge, colossal, bigger than big.
That Let’s go! and big were pretty much the extent of Anna Elena’s English was fortunate, at least for me. Within weeks, I was speaking great for an American whose introduction to Portuguese had been a 10-week crash course at Berkeley. I’m not sure my teacher back in Dwinelle Hall would have approved, but I was picking up all kinds of Brazilian slang. Expressions like Caixa Prego (as far away as Timbuktu), sob controlle (I got it covered), deixa conmigo (leave it up to me), tudo azul, tudo bem, tudo legal, tudo jóia, (everything’s cool), não dá (doesn’t work), fazer um baianada (to execute a U-turn or any other flagrant violation in or out of a car), com licença (literally “with license,” but more commonly, “excuse me”) and my personal favorite, abacaxi (pronounced in full exotica, a-BOK-a-she, which meant pineapple, but was given to signal “a big mess”) had become part of my own speech. A host of Portuguese words and their alien sounds tickled me—jabuticaba (a berry), jacarandá (a type of wood), and jacarí (an alligator—or an ugly woman) underscored the fertile, foreign territory that I was now my home.
A month after Anna Elena and I started going out, we went to see a movie at the Marabá, one of the huge movie palaces downtown where ushers show you your seats. As soon as we sat down, Anna Elena took my hand in hers. For the entire film she wouldn’t let go. She stroked, squeezed, patted, petted, and played with my right hand as though it no longer belonged to me, but had become a floppy appendage placed on earth for her own personal use. I knew Anna Elena to be affectionate, but this was something new. It was only during the 15-minute intermission (a Brazilian invention to push refreshments), though, when Anna Elena pointedly kissed my neck, checks, and tantalized me by brushing her full lips against mine. Why then, with the lights on?
I came to realize her actions were a lesson in how serious Brazilians are about displaying public affection. On any given weekend or evening, park benches in São Paulo would be filled with couples necking, and when they got carried away, much more. Many of the amantes tangled in each other’s arms were empregadas and porteiros (maids and doormen) at nearby high-rise apartment buildings. Park benches were the most convenient places for initial liaisons, but there were other venues—lanchonetes, cafes, movie theaters, buses. What was important was that these encounters took place in public. Such displays of affection were proclamations that said, “This is my man! This is my woman! Look at us!” They also had something to do with machismo, as well as a feminine guard against too brazen an advance. But what they mostly telegraphed was a sense of possession and ownership.
The next weekend, a scorching three-day holiday named after the saint of safe travel, the temperature soared to a ridiculous 38 degrees centigrade. Anna Elena and I were wilting. If we were made of something other than flesh, we’d have melted. We decided what we both needed was to leave the steaming city, so we boarded a leito bus to Guarujá, north of Santos, to the beach. We carried with us in a knapsack apples, bottled water, a baguette and goat cheese, for what Anna Elena merrily announced would be a piquenique, a Portuguese word borrowed from the French, slummed by the Americans into picnic.
I had wanted to go to the beach ever since I had arrived in Brazil. Still, there was no way to prepare for what I saw once we got there.
My eyes bugged out. The women floored me. Strutting, proud, bold, they weren’t exactly wearing bikinis, more like three miniscule triangular patches of cloth attached by string. The Brazilians called these microscopic coverings tangas, but also fio dental, which translated to dental floss. As soon as we found a spot, Anna Elena peeled off her own shorts and blouse. No way was this nordestina (northeastern Brazilian) to be outdone by the paulista gatinhas (beach girls from São Paulo). Anna Elena, too, was wearing practically nothing. “E-sti-ve,” she said, smiling, a ready expression of pride and perhaps a little embarrassment, “você gosta?” (“Do you like?”) I felt silly saying yes, and then we dunked in the tepid Atlantic water—sizzle. Anna Elena looked like a mermaid, her wet hair flat against her head, droplets of salty water sticking to her bronzed skin. I’m afraid my white skin telegraphed my origins, but so did my Gap-issue trunks, which resembled an inflated balloon girding my waist as we bobbed.
Back on the beach, we bunched up sand to form inclined pillows, and then laid out our towels. As soon as we sat, Anna Elena positioned my head on her lap, and rubbed my scalp with her manicured nails—cafuné, an Angolan word that means to stroke a loved one’s head (usually a baby’s or small child’s) to induce relaxation, then sleep. I wasn’t sure whether that was Anna Elena’s motive or whether it was to keep my eyes off the other women. After 20 minutes, Anna Elena then gave me an impromptu facial. Not that I needed one. It was another Brazilian way to show affection, but also title.
After six weeks of seeing each other almost every day, our relationship had taken a decided turn. Anna Elena’s exhibition of ownership had blossomed in full force. She demanded to know my whereabouts, almost hour by hour. If I wasn’t back at the pensão, she wanted to know where I was and with whom. If I worked late at the newspaper, she would call, not just once, but three or four times. Moyra, Penelope, Carlos, and Stan knew Anna Elena’s voice (who else would be calling me?). “E-sti-ve,” they’d shout across the newsroom in a falsetto. The paste-up guys would join in, forming an off-key chorus.
Perhaps I was to blame for Anna Elena’s insecurity, but certainly it was nothing I had sought. One night at a bôite (nightclub) near the Daily Post, on a seedy street, Anna Elena caught a tall, willowy blonde smiling at me from across the room. To be truthful, I’m not even sure the woman was smiling at me. But that made no difference. Anna Elena stomped on my foot under the table and gave the woman a drop-dead look, all the while firmly placing her hand atop mine. We went back to our conversation, something about Brazilian men and how their consumption of beer goes way down in the winter, but a half-hour later when I went to the men’s room, the blonde woman met me just past the door, out of sight from the tables upfront. I was floored by how brazen she was. She didn’t say a word, placing her right index finger to her red lips, all the while deftly slipping into my hand a matchbook, then walking back to her table. The whole thing took three or four seconds, no more. When I got inside the men’s room, I opened the matchbook and saw this scrawled inside:
I was certain Anna Elena had no idea what had transpired because she smiled at me when I returned. The blonde woman across the restaurant made no more eye contact with me. That was that. In 20 minutes, after we finished two rounds of vodka caipirinhas, Anna Elena gayly announced “Lez-go!”
That night back at the pensão, lying in bed, a single cotton sheet twisted at the foot of the bed, both of us steaming hot, without a stitch of clothing on, Anna Elena repeatedly asked whether I was seeing someone else, Está saindo com otra? I said no, and meant it. All the women at the newspaper were married or living with boyfriends. Short of connecting with someone on the bus or in a lanchonete during lunch, there really weren’t that many opportunities. But Anna Elena wouldn’t let go. Was this connected to the blonde at the bôite? I asked. Suddenly, Anna Elena sat up, nipples poking through her thick black hair, eyes wide open. She said that if she ever caught me with another woman she’d kill her.
It was a dramatic exaggeration (I hoped), but nonetheless I marveled at the logic. She wouldn’t kill me. She wouldn’t even blame me. I’d be innocent. It was the woman who’d get the shiv. She’d be the aggressor, the interloper, the bitch who had come between Anna Elena and her man.
I leaned against a pillow. An unexpected breeze came through the window, which I had propped open with a couple of books. I smoothed out the bed sheet and pulled it toward my chest. Anna Elena sat opposite me. She had her legs over mine, arms akimbo.
It was during these moments when Anna Elena would call me her nego (black man), but that’s a direct translation, and hardly anyone in Brazil uses the expression literally. Meu nego really means “my sweetheart.” I’d reciprocate with minha nega or minha neginha. Anna Elena often told me that everyone in Brazil has a paintbrush of color in them, some more, some less. Color didn’t carry the same implications it did in the States. There were so many gradations of color in Brazil, that it made no sense to harbor any sentiment of separateness. If there was stigma, it was directed at class not color, and Brazilians considered the two separate and distinct.
On this sultry evening in this cocoon, I felt as comfortable as I ever could imagine myself feeling. Five months earlier, how could I ever have dreamt that I’d be in bed with a naked Brazilian woman, feeling balmy South Hemispheric breezes floating through a half-opened window?
Anna Elena broke my reverie. “Pesado,” she repeated, stretching the word. Pay-zaaaaaaaaaa-dough is how it came out. And then it hit me. The American slang, heavy, as in “significant, important, deeply meaningful,” carried over directly to the Portuguese. As we realized the intermingling of our two tongues, we laughed. Ow-wow, bow-wow all over again.
By now, 10 months in Brazil, I had accumulated a working knowledge of slang. Words like cara (guy), meu bem or bichinho (sweetheart), puxa-saco (an ass kisser), bater papo (to gossip), uma gatinhha (a party girl), estar com saco cheio (to be annoyed, fed up), and uma bagunça (a total screw-up) had now become part of my own lexicon. Much of what I was learning was sexual and pretty vulgar—peru or pao (literally, turkey or wood, but more colloquially, penis), chochota (vagina), gozar (to come), trepar (to fuck), bumbum or bunda (butt), xixi (pee)—but in the glow of my tiny rented room atop the pensão, these words, free of any real context or significance, were as fresh and comforting as nursery rhymes to a child.
“Pois é, bemzinho,” Anna Elena said, kissing me on the lips, then pushing herself off the bed to the cane-backed chair near the desk. She and Graça had planned to go early the next morning to an antiques feira at the Museum of Art of São Paulo. Anna Elena snapped a bracelet on her wrist and threaded her earlobes with silvery earrings that dangled when she swung her head. She pulled back her hair into a ponytail and snapped a barrette over it, which made a clicking sound. She stood up to squeeze into her jeans, then slipped coral-colored flip-flops between her now-dry toes.
Just as Anna Elena rose, her right arm must have brushed against my pants, draped over the back of the chair. She must have felt something, because in a flash, she instinctively reached into one of the pockets and pulled out the matchbook the blonde at the restaurant had given me. I had forgotten about it.
Anna Elena looked inside, saw the name and telephone number, and within seconds, let out a succession of profanity whose meanings I had no idea. She held up the matchbook with her right hand, like a bounty she had seized from the enemy.
I was a two-timing, good-for-nothing machão, a man like all other men, a malandro, a maloqueiro, someone she’d never trust again. Brazilian men, American men—they were all the same. For a moment, I thought, Anna Elena was going to throw my Lettera 32 at me—or worse, out the window. I rushed over to her, as much to comfort the typewriter as to appease her, but with more force than I was accustomed to feeling, she pushed me away, and I fell back down on the bed.
After an hour of screaming, we patched things up, or so I thought. I kept looking for a moment to insert an expression I had recently learned, “fica fria,” which means “stay cool,” but that opening never presented itself. We both looked spent for all the wrong reasons. As we walked downstairs and through the restaurant to the street, several men looked my way and nodded, it seemed, appreciatively, having heard the argument or seeing Anna Elena, I wasn’t sure which. We walked hand in hand, saying nothing, too tired to go at it again. In an attempt at reconciliation, I said I still wanted to go with her tomorrow afternoon to the neighborhood fruit feira, as we had planned. She nodded vacantly, her eyes puffy.
I greeted Anna Elena the next day as effusively as I knew how, but she was still smarting. As we walked down Artur de Azevedo, I took her hand in mine. She began talking with those familiar swooshing sounds, the same motionless glide to her walk. We were getting back to how it used to be.
The feira was crowded, vendors selling everything from speckled dove eggs, to shiny scaly fish, to purple fuchsias. We momentarily got separated, Anna Elena staying back at the pomegranate stall as I walked to another stall run by a mãe do santo, a large Bahian woman dressed in white, selling religious statues, soaps, incense, and acarajês (corn fritters) she was frying in a metal bowl with lighted butane under it.
I was shopping for fruit when she and I met up again. Immediately, she demanded that we hold hands. An unshaven man near the pomegranate stand had whispered “Bunda gostosa“ (“sweet ass”) in her ear. Any man she was with would want not just to hold his woman’s hand, but to put his arm around her waist, Anna Elena scolded me. For the life of her, she couldn’t understand me. I shrugged my shoulders.
As was our plan, we went our separate ways at the corner, dividing our purchases into two bags. I had to work that evening on a special tourism supplement the newspaper was publishing.
When I got back to the pensão late that Saturday night, the weekly fest below my room was going strong. The smell of beer and urine was a lingering aroma I had grown accustomed to on Saturday nights, and as I gently pushed through the mass of partygoers, I automatically breathed through my mouth. “Com licença, favor, disculpa (Excuse me),” I said. They were good-natured, drunk, and opened a pathway for me. As I walked up the stairs to my room, I noticed the door was open a crack.
When I walked in, I found Anna Elena going through a stack of letters atop my dresser. I had no idea how she gotten into my room, but I knew instinctively that I was in trouble. Anna Elena had in front of her a letter from Doreen, an old girlfriend from Berkeley, who had enclosed a snapshot of herself. That Anna Elena couldn’t read the accompanying letter, I think, must have added to her anger.
As I stood in the doorway, Anna Elena dropped the letter and ran past me. I tried to stop her, but she fled down the stairs and out the pensão. I followed her, and on the street outside the restaurant, just as several tipsy couples were starting to make their way home, we had one of those quarrels you never forget no matter how long ago it happened. We had reached an impasse, that I understood. Anna Elena could no longer tolerate “my ways,” as she put it. It was a locura, a brincadeira (a big joke); I was playing her for a fool. Anyone could see that. She had reached her limit, and was saco cheio. Anna Elena stormed off to her apartment in Vila Magdalena, and this time, I did not follow.
During the next two weeks, Anna Elena slipped under my door three letters. She called me at the newspaper once, but I was unable to talk. I didn’t hear from her again for a month.
I actually welcomed the interlude. At dusk one evening, I believe I saw her hurrying across Avenida Paulista near Rua Libero Badaró, but I resisted the urge to catch up to her. Most evenings, I returned to the pensão to tackle my Portuguese grammar book. Once or twice a week, I went to the Marabá, and on occasion I went to the symphony at the Teatro Municipal using the newspaper’s reviewer tickets. I occasionally went out with Moyra, an English woman at the newspaper who had a thing for Werner Herzog films, but that led nowhere.
Sometime in mid-January, I received a note from Anna Elena, slipped under my door. It was not sprayed with perfume, and her penmanship showed signs of strain. The later part of the letter was written in block letters and the letter ended abruptly. On the envelope was a postmark from Recife, a city in the northeast. Anna Elena had quit her job at the salão de beleza, had moved near her home, and was living with an aunt who worked in a lace factory.
We were too different, she wrote, like vinagre e óleo. We complemented each other, but could never be one. She forgave me for any transgressions. She harbored no ill will whatsoever and wished me well.
Over the coming months, whenever I went to the neighborhood feira on Saturdays, I’d imagine that I’d see Anna Elena gliding down the middle of the street, vendors singing the praises of their fruits and vegetables, her melodic words hanging, suspended in mid-air above the crowd. But I never saw her at the feira again.
After four or five months of living atop the restaurant, I grew to dread Saturdays. I seldom went downstairs on Saturday evenings, instead choosing to barricade myself in my room. It was a personal protest against the noise.
One Saturday, having nothing planned for the day, I tried the number on the matchbook that the blonde at the bôite had slipped me. Somehow, in all the confusion, Anna Elena hadn’t bothered to rip up the match cover—or save it, so she could kill the woman. At this point, what did I have to lose?
When I dialed the number, a man picked up. “Pronto!” he bellowed in a gruff, angry voice that scared the shit out of me. Ready? Ready for what? I hung up as carefully as I could, without saying a word. Maybe that’s why Gloria had given me her number in the first place. Maybe the whole thing had been a set-up. The last thing I needed was to find out.
As with all affairs, thoughts of Anna Elena struck me at the strangest moments—riding home on a crowded bus, sipping guaraná in a corner bar, watching a women adjust her earring. Anna Elena’s visage began to fade into the newly constructed past of my life in Brazil. Our friendship continued to evolve even in the absence of each other. She had been the only soul I really knew in Brazil. My co-workers at the newspaper were occupied with their families and careers. The last thing they needed was to coddle me, a loner from the States. Besides, I was elated to be in Brazil, finally working for a newspaper. I had time.
All that changed one evening when I experienced a sidesplitting pain in my stomach. My stomach felt like it was about to detonate. I got myself down the stairs and I yelled for the first taxi on the street. As I got in, clutching my stomach, I asked the driver to get me to the nearest hospital. The driver looked back at me and for a moment, I didn’t know whether he’d take me. By the way I was holding my side, I might have been nursing a gunshot wound. A guy with a strange accent, doubled over in pain, stinking of vomit, pee, and shit, instructing the driver to take him to the nearest hospital? This was right out of one of Moyra’s Herzog films.
The driver said nothing, which was just as well. I couldn’t have carried on a conversation in English, much less in Portuguese. All the while, the driver kept peering in his rearview mirror, raising his eyebrows a little, widening his eyes so I could see his whites. Outside, an emaciated dog hopped on three paws next to his owner. A crippled man leaned on crutches, next to a popcorn stand still open for business. I had no idea where the driver was taking me, careening through the night streets of this foreign city. No one knew where I was. Would there even be a physician on call at this hour? I had left my passport back at the pensão and wasn’t even sure what, if any, medical insurance I had.
Within 20 minutes, the driver pulled in front of a small hospital on a street named Conselheiro Brotero. I slowly got out, the pain in my side now coming back in full force. I gave the driver whatever bills I had in my pocket. “Vá com Deus!” he said as he sped away.
I rang the bell at an iron gate and soon a nurse, wearing a starched white cap, walked briskly to greet me. She helped me limp into the ER waiting room. I was relieved to see only three patients. I repeated my symptoms for another nurse and, upon seeing my hands clutching my right side, she announced, “Apendicite!” and commanded me to take a seat. The doutor would be with me shortly. Take a seat? I could barely sit or stand. I crumpled to floor and started moaning.
I must have fallen off to sleep because the next thing I remember was looking up at a giant defused light overhead. I was inside the operating teatro, the eyes of a surgeon peering down at mine. A tangle of lines and tubes was connected to my chest, and an IV had been attached to a large vein near the elbow of my left arm. The doctor said that he was about to begin to cut, and for the sake of the anesthesiologist, I should commence counting backwards from 100.
“Cem,” I started slowly. One hundred.
I felt icy fluid entering an artery vein in my left arm, coursing through my body. I shivered.
“Noventa e nove.”
“Noventa e oito.”
“Noventa e sete.”
“Noventa e …”
I closed my eyes.
I had no idea how much time had elapsed. When I awoke, I was in a room that was all white. I instinctively reached for my right side, and felt a large, bulging bandage. My side ached, but this time, it was from outside, not inside. I slept on and off for three days.
On the third day of my recovery, as I was recuperating, I heard a knock on my door. The door opened a crack, and it was Anna Elena, eyes peering around the corner.
“E-sti-ve,” she said, swinging her ponytail so that it rested just so on her right shoulder. She walked over to my side, and there it was again magically—how she glided, head still, shoulders back. Anna Elena had returned to São Paulo from Recife that week, and when the newspaper operator told her what had happened to me, she took a taxi straight to the hospital.
She brought dessert, something Brazilians call Romeu e Julieta—sweet guava paste and creamy cheese. She climbed onto my bed and started feeding me with her lacquered nails. I half-protested, “Tem cuidado, minhas costas ainda duelen” (“be careful, my sides still hurt”), but she knew I wasn’t serious. The hospital-bed springs creaked, which made us laugh, which in turn, made the springs creak more, which made us laugh even more. She managed to roll diagonally on her back across the bed, stretch her legs up towards the ceiling, lift her butt momentarily from the sheets, and wiggle out of her jeans.
Within seconds, she was naked. “As ordens do doutor,” she said, at first serious, then giggling.
We tried not to make noise, which wasn’t easy. At one point, I shifted my body, grinding the thick white bandage that cinched my waist against her hips. Anna Elena stopped cold, thinking, I suppose, that she had irritated my incision, but when I shook my head and urged her to continue, we cracked up again. When we finished, we were soaked, guava paste on our faces and in our hair.
Ten, 20 minutes later, Anna Elena glanced at the clock on the wall. She pivoted to the side of the bed, and pulled back on her jeans and T-shirt. She and Graça were to start driving that evening; Anna Elena’s job at a salão in Brasilia started Monday. “Pois é, bemzinho,” she said as much to me as to herself as to no one.
I hobbled my way to the hospital’s main entrance with Anna Elena, our fingers automatically locking. At the front door, we stood face to face. I could feel her eyelashes against my cheeks. We hugged, then a quick kiss, then she walked through the door—coasting of course—toward the hospital’s front gate, then out to the street. She opened the door of the first cab in the taxi queue, giving the driver instructions from the backseat. She was animated, I could see, using her hands to describe which streets he ought to take. Anna Elena looked my way and waved, just as the driver turned on the ignition. The cab sputtered down the street, spewing vapors that rose into the air in separate puffs, and when the taxi turned the corner, it was gone.
—Photo Marcos Vasconcelos Photography/Flickr