Authors: Amy Ragsdale
HE DAY AFTER
we got back to Penedo, Peter flung some groceries through the front door and panted, “I'm going back down to the
, to see if I can do something for Junior.”
Peter's soccer buddy had been in jail for over a week. Dalan said Junior was waiting for the judge's decision, and the decision had been delayed because the judge was on vacation.
“What are you trying to do?” I asked when Peter clanged back through the front door a few hours later.
“Find out his last name.”
Peter had found Dalan at Gordo's Lanchonete, and he knew the name but, being unable to read or write, couldn't tell Peter how to spell it. Peter walked a few blocks farther down and ran into some of the guys at the soccer field. The word was out.
VocÃª vai pegar Junior
”âYou're going to get Junior out of jail.
Peter explained he wanted to hire a lawyer, but he needed Junior's last name. They didn't know it. They offered to take him to Junior's mom.
Peter stood outside the small yellow box where she lived. Junior's sister came to the door, wrote out their last name, and invited Peter in. Built like a block and missing a few front teeth, Junior's mother ran a bar, inside her house.
Earlier in the day, Peter had read me an email from Zeca, whom he'd enlisted to check into Junior's case along with Zeca's dad, a retired criminal lawyer who knew the judge. “It doesn't look good,” Zeca had written. “In the police file, it says it wasn't just a bar fight. It says he wanted to kill the man.”
I remembered watching Junior deftly bend the soccer ball into the goal at one of Peter's games. After that, he'd graciously dropped out to
let another player play and had gone to sit in the stands with his young wife and baby daughter, happily nosing his face into hers.
Peter had latched onto Junior after it became clear he was by far the most talented with his feet. Junior had taken Peter under his wing, always choosing him for his team, giving him tips, picking him to take the penalty shots, teaching him to dance the victory dance.
And now this. Would the real Junior please stand up? I guessed he was all these things: the tender father, the patient coach, the man curious enough to befriend a foreigner, and the drunken brawler.
I wondered what had really happened, what the future held for Junior, his wife, and six-month-old Bianca. Where was the dividing line that separated quick-footed, fun-loving Junior from quick-footed, fun-loving Marcelo, our friend who moved from the Penedo soccer team to Barcelona to coaching teams in Saudi Arabia and Dubai? I realized I didn't know much about Marcelo's background, what class he'd come from. My impression was that the professional Brazilian
leagues were not combing the poorer neighborhoods to fill their ranks. Too bad. There was a lot of talent there.
Y BIRTHDAY IS
in January. I'll be turning fifty-three. I'd quit my full-time job as a university professor when I turned fifty, looking for more time at home with Molly and Skyler and time to promote my dance company, Headwaters. I'd been excited about this new chapter, though nervous, too, knowing it could throw our family into financial disarray. While I gained flexibility in my schedule, I didn't gain time. I was my own worst taskmaster, each week falling short of my oversized list of things to do.
Before the Kadas-Newells had left us in Salvador, Martha had initiated a New Year's activity for our families that involved spreading cards with words printed on them facedown on a table and asking each of us to pick two. We had the option to put the cards back if we didn't like them. My words could not have been more apropos.
was the first. That was part of what I had been hoping to find in Brazil and what I couldn't seem to hang on to in the United States.
was the secondâanother thing I found easily disappeared into the maw of work at home but seemed to be exuded here by every boom-box-jiving, capoeira-flipping, surf-diving, market-chatting,
-kicking Brazilian. Interestingly, the only word that got returned to the pile, and repeatedly, by several different people, old and young, was
. That's one we took seriously in the States, one we'd been telling our kids more about lately. (“If you want to drive a car, it comes with responsibilities . . .”) It was a word that, by our standards, Brazilians were a little more relaxed about. The van might fill, bumping your carefully made reservation; class might start an hour late; the repairman might never show up.
I was pleased with my picks.
would be great gifts for turning fifty-three. I immediately had a chance to practice hanging on to them.
While in Salvador for New Years, I'd received an email from the U.S. government department that administers the grants that my dance company receives, called
. It said I needed to go online and change my dance company's password before it expired, in the next seven days. I didn't have the list of numbersâthe MPIN, TPIN, CAGE, NAIC, SIC, and DUNS numbersâthat might be required to do this with me in Salvador. When I got home to Penedo, I'd have four days left. Judging from past experience, this would be cutting it close. When we got back to Penedo, I tried to log on. The error message told me my username didn't exist. When I clicked on
I forgot my username
, I got an email giving me the same nonexistent username. And so it went. I emailed support. No one answered.
“What happens if your password expires?” Peter asked, standing behind me in the garden room as I continued to hit the same keys over and over, trying to physically force the correct window on my computer to open.
“I don't know. I've never let it happen.”
I tried again the next day. Nothing had changed. No one had responded to my questions, and then our Internet went down. Balance, joy. The day after this, we would be leaving for Pontal to stay at Ada's
and celebrate my birthday. There, the Internet would be sketchy at best. I bought extra cell phone time in case I had to call the United States, and then, amazingly for me, I decided to stop worrying.
On the morning of my birthday, I went down to the
to try my luck at the ATMs and reserve seats on a van for the kids and myself, a process that turned into the usual maze of misinformation and misunderstandings. I felt as though I were caught in an M.C. Escher painting, the one where the stairs lead up, down, and nowhere all at once, rather like my online username nightmare.
Five hours later, we managed to climb into a van. I should have found this trying, but in fact, it had been nice just to hang out and chat with the kids while we waited. Maybe I was learning to channel Brazilian patience. A patience one could call “resignation” or, with a better spin, an ability to enjoy oneself no matter what.
The van trip took longer than usual. We detoured through small villages. At Peba, we drove through town and right out onto the hard-
sand beach, circling back to the highway through the high tide. When we got to Pontal, Ada was waiting. Cigarette in hand, she announced in her whiskey voice that our usual bungalow was ready. She'd left a small bouquet of hibiscus and bougainvillea on the table, for me.
While the kids changed into suits, grabbed the boogie board and flippers, and headed to the beach, I borrowed the modem from Ada and checked to see if “support” had contacted me. They hadn't. Okay, time to call. In Brazil, one had to buy minutes on cell phones, so it tended to run out. I'd bought the biggest increment I could, but as soon as the message came onâ“your wait will be at least three minutes”âI knew it was going to be a gamble. I could envision the phone dying as the support-staff person was asking, “May I have your DUNS number?” Thirty-five dollars spent for nothing. I left a message, “I'm in Brazil . . .” and headed to the beach. Balance, joy.
While I was grappling with my phone situation, Skyler had shown up panting.
“Mom, the tide's high, but you know that empty lot, how there's a wall on the other side? You can kind of go along this little ledge, then climb the next wall and walk along the top, and you'll get to where there's still beach. Okay? Bye,” and he'd ducked back out under the veranda roof and disappeared.
When I got to the first wall, I looked over and down the other side. There was the little ledge, a half inch wide. White-fingered waves hurled themselves hungrily against it. Was that where they'd gone? I looked down the beach. No one. The waves, the wall? I looked uneasily out to sea.
I remembered we'd seen a rickety gate in a sand dune farther down. I crossed back through the empty lot and circled around through town.
Pontal do Coruripe is a fishing village on a point that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean, forming one end of a large bay. Its sweaty, slow pace makes Penedo feel like Manhattan. TV screens flicker behind sheets hung over open doors, revealing inhabitants asleep in their chairs. Birds hop lackadaisically in cages suspended over front verandas. Hole-in-the-wall shops sell biscuits, warm Coke, and
, the palm-frond handicrafts this village is famous for.
I ended up on a road where I'd never been, paralleling the beach. A
large lagoon full of mangrove bushes ran along my left. The inhabitants of a fancy walled house on the right had dug holes in the concrete and planted spiky agave plants in the middle of the sidewalk. At home, one can't willfully block the sidewalk. At home, if you don't shovel the snow by ten in the morning to clear the passage, you can be fined. I shifted into the street.
I suspected the rickety gate was attached to Pousada Paradiso, so I asked permission to thread through its stucco bungalows. Standing at the flimsy gate wedged open in drifting sand, I looked out at the vastness of ocean then down the beach.
There they were, Skyler, Molly, and Brooke, three ecstatic figures jumping the waves, freeze-frames caught in silhouette against the shimmering water. I felt a flush of relief. Except for them, the great curve of beach was empty. Palm groves waved in the breeze. It was suddenly looking good: fifty-three, on a deserted Brazilian beach with happily cavorting kids, government password or no.
We ambled back hours later as the sun disappeared behind the trees. Peter, who'd stayed behind in Penedo to continue his research on a new book proposal, had arrived. Ada had set dinner under the arbor on the back patio, clay dishes of sweet sautÃ©ed vegetables, garlic beans, tomatoes with basil, and steamed dorado. Then came the mango cream and then the surprise, a chocolate cake with fresh strawberries. Peter must have called ahead. I was wearing my birthday presents from the kids, gold flip-flops and sparkly dangling earrings. I was feeling more Brazilian by the day.
Peter and Ada were talking about whether the villagers were going to succeed in thwarting the state's effort to put in a massive shipyard. Oil had been discovered seventy miles off the coast, and the government wanted a shipyard to service the offshore rigs. They'd offered each fishing family one hundred
a month to go along with the plan, though they hadn't made it clear how long they'd continue to pay. At first, the fishermen had thought that sounded good, but then they'd begun to wonder how it might affect the fisheries and had started to organize against it.
As I listened quietly, my eyes began to close. Excusing myself, I ducked under the bamboo chimes and unlocked the door of our bungalow.
I kicked off my new flip-flops. The stone floor felt cool under my sandy feet. I turned on the fan, crept under the diaphanous mosquito netting, and collapsed into bed. It had been a good day.
The next morning, the kids once again headed to the beach, and I logged on to
. Two days to go. My “nonexistent” username worked! My pleas for help had been heard. I headed out to the beach. Balance and joy. I thought the fifties were going to be fine.
KYLER HAD HAD
one rocky day after Carson and Bowen left, but he seemed notably better than he had been for the previous six months, as though he'd suddenly made a jump in the journey toward adulthood. He seemed to be handling things that would have sent him into a downward spiral two months before with philosophical equanimity.
After two days at Pontal, we moved on to MaceiÃ³, to spend a couple of days before putting Brooke on the plane back to the States. As soon as we arrived, she, Skyler, and Molly donned their suits and ran for JatiÃºca Beach to go surfing. Disraelle, our favorite instructor, went out with Brooke, as it was her first time. Skyler ended up with Disraelle's wife, who forgot her flippers, swallowed a lot of water, and bailed before Skyler even made it out to where he could wait for waves. My heart sank as I watched this from my rented beach chair.
Skyler was also on the squirrely, smaller board, the one that was harder to control. He only got up once, but on the difficult board and on his own. The girls came in. He stayed out.
One more good ride, just one more
, I prayed to myself. I could see this was going to take a while. I dug my heels into the sand. My stamina for handling Skyler's downturns was definitely diminishing.
A group of Brazilian tourists from Amazonas asked about Skyler, as he flipped over time and again. “
”âA lot of resilience, they said.
As I looked out at the incredible turquoise-green water and watched my boy miss wave after wave, I began to wonder about obsessionâwhen it's helpful, when it's not. I supposed the Steve Jobses of the world had to have some degree of obsessiveness to bring their dreams to fruition. But when did it become self-destructive? How could we help Skyler navigate that line?
He finally came in. I said I'd seen him hanging upside down, under
the water, feet hooked on top of the board, quite a few times, sometimes for a long time.
“I know,” he said. “I was so pissed, I thought I should just hang upside down and chill out. But I like that board.”
“You do?” I was surprised. “It's so difficult.”
“I know, but did you see, I got up on it once, all by myself, and it's cool. I wasn't very steady, but it's really quick. You can move it all around.”
This was definitely not the boy we'd known a few months before. The boy who was convinced, after he'd split his head, that he couldn't do anything. The next day, he asked if he could just rent a board, no lessons. The proprietor looked at him and advised him to go to the part of the beach with smaller waves.
“No, I want to go there,” he replied.
“That's where the big waves are,” I said uneasily.
He hitched that same squirrely board under his arm and marched into the breaking waves. Paddling out, belly down, his already slight figure disappeared behind the swells. But then he reappeared, sitting upright on his board; out with the big guys, all rising and sinking on the building waves, face to the horizon, waiting. He got up several times in the next hour, not long rides, but solidly on his feet.
I felt tremendous pride. Not because Skyler was learning to surf, but because Skyler seemed to be walking out of the fire. Walking tall.