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Authors: Amy Ragsdale

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We Make a Friend: Zeca
We Make a Friend: Zeca

 

S
WEET SIXTEEN
. In Brazil, the significant birthday for girls is fifteen, perhaps because some start getting pregnant then. But Molly was about to turn sixteen, and it seemed especially significant to me, in part because I'd been preparing myself for months for the sexual onslaught from macho Brazilian men that Molly might attract, as a young, beautiful blond—at least from the “Brazilian Man” I'd imagined: charming, handsome, and thinking about nothing but SEX. I'd been wondering whether a girl from small-town Montana was going to be equipped to handle it.

Molly's birthday has always been a production, starting with the three-day event (the family party, the friend party, and the slumber party) through her elementary school years and gradually tapering to the family dinner and a night out with friends by the time she was in high school. Even so, there we were in a town where she knew no one, and I knew that for her, her birthday mattered. I wanted it to feel special. We were still living at the
pousada
. That morning, Antonio, the
pousada
's cook, secretively called me into the kitchen. He wanted to show off the sausage and massive slab of beef that he'd bought for Molly's birthday
feijoada
, the traditional celebratory Brazilian bean stew. Katia, who worked the desk and would turn out to be our rock—providing us with a seemingly infinite supply of family members to help us over the course of the year—had ordered an incredibly gooey chocolate cake. She was small and neat in her uniform of brown pants, yellow blouse, and wedge heels on tiny feet. She exuded efficiency.


Dona Amy, não se preocupe
”—don't worry—she would say, listening intently.
I will handle everything
was the subtext. And she did. Periodically, she would roll her doe-brown eyes and sigh, “Oh my gawd,” her one phrase in English. But she'd just laugh and shrug at the latest mishap.

Elizia, the firecracker of an office manager from the school the kids
would be attending, had sent Molly a huge bouquet of roses, though school wouldn't start until the next day and they'd never met. (How did she even know it was Molly's birthday?)

Amazingly, considering we'd only been in Penedo for a bit over a week, Molly's birthday had attracted a crowd. Victor and Breno were hanging with Skyler—who was wearing his newly purchased “Brasil” baseball cap to hide his Frankensteinian arc of stitches. Karol (which they pronounced
Karau
), Victor's older sister, who would become one of Molly's best friends; Katia and her Aunt Laura (Aunt
Lowra
); Antonio's daughters Amanda and Ananda; and a handful of others I didn't recognize were there as well, including Zeca.

A week earlier, the day before Skyler split his scalp open and took the harrowing ride to the trauma center, we'd been invited by a new acquaintance to the Penedo Clube de Ténis. I'd been asking if there was a pool anywhere in town, and Dr. Fernando, a family friend of the owners of the
pousada
, came to our rescue. He invited us to the tennis club. Dr. Fernando was one of the few people who spoke Portuguese slowly enough that I could actually follow it. I liked him immediately.

The next morning, Peter, Skyler, Molly, and I left the Pousada Colonial, trooped up the ridge, and found the club, with its bright white walls and turquoise blue trim. We opened the iron gate and wandered in. It had a commanding view of the
lagoa,
a “lake” that no longer existed but had left a huge grass-and-sand basin in the valley below.

A door popped open in a building on the left.


Ahhh
—blankety, blankety, blank—
Americanos!
—blankety, blankety, blank—
música
.” A jovial man in heavy rectangular glasses above bulldog jowls was motioning us to come in. Where was Dr. Fernando with his slow speech and clear enunciation? (Peter would soon devise a helpful phrase in Portuguese: “When you talk to me, imagine you're talking to a six-year-old.”)

Dr. Fernando was nowhere to be seen, but we'd just met Eduardo, the club president. He marched us onto a glassed-in porch, sat us down at the end of a long table, and ordered up some Coke and beer.
Around the table were a dozen other mostly graying men, who at 10:00
AM
were drinking beer and shots of honey-colored
cachaça
, sugarcane rum. Eduardo picked up a guitar. A large songbook was open in the middle of the table. One man leafed through it.


Aqui o.
” Here.

They began crooning a bossa nova—all except the young man at the far end, with the ebony hair; a long, chiseled jaw; dark, intense eyes; and a smile that revealed a slight gap between his front teeth. Zeca. He was the first of three twenty-six-year-olds I would come to think of as our “guides.”

When I'm traveling in a strange place where I don't speak the language, I observe much more than at home, where I've come to take things for granted. But I know so little and understand even less. I find myself making up stories about the places and people I meet. It's easy to start confusing the stories with reality.

I also find myself relying on sources I might not under normal circumstances, either because they present themselves or because they're the only ones I can communicate with. I trust people I might not if I knew more, because I have no choice. Often these are young men. It's not that they're necessarily bad characters; they're just not the experts one might seek out given more choice, though in fact they are often experts in their own ways.

In our travels before we had kids, Peter and I were continually picked up by teenage boys. I suppose they had time and curiosity. We'd hire them to be our guides. On a story assignment of Peter's in northern Greenland, we camped on the tundra outside the village of Qaanaaq and were found by Akiak, a seventeen-year-old. He became our translator. When Peter commissioned an Inuit hunter to take us by dog sled out onto the frozen sea ice, it was Akiak who translated when we got stranded, the ice unexpectedly breaking up; or when I needed somewhere in all that white to change a tampon; or when we camped for two days on an ice floe, waiting for the huffing snort of surfacing narwhal.

In Ghana, it was again teenage boys, two this time, who offered to take us hunting for “bush meat” in the jungle outside a town in
the province of Brong Ahafo. We looked for hollow fallen logs and stood back when they shot randomly into their dark holes, pulverizing whatever was inside. I guess this was amusement, not dinner. They generously shared their lunch, stewed we-didn't-ask-what (because it looked an awful lot like rat), transported in a gym bag.

In Indonesia, it was Ari who took us to his village to stay with his mom, where we were housed in one of the many cubby rooms kept for visiting males, invited in solely for a one-night stand, in that matrilineal Minangkabau society.

Once we had kids, this stopped. The teenage boys dropped us.

But the twenty-somethings picked us up. At the tennis club, Zeca ambled over, in his long, loose shorts, soft T-shirt, and lazy flip-flops, and sat down.

“I don' really like this music,” he confided in English that came out like a dotted line. “You know . . . Alison Chase? I like . . . Alison Chase. Thaz . . . good music!” He dropped his chin emphatically as he said it. It would be months before I realized he'd said “Alice in Chains.”

Over the guitar music Zeca told us he was the son of a lawyer and had become a lawyer himself, a labor lawyer defending the “little guy,” the laborer.

“Labor law is good . . .” he paused, “for making money. Because the law here in Brazil protects the worker, so if they get money from the company, then I get part of it.” He puffed his chest and did that
yo, check me out
head bob, grinning and making it sound like he was just in it for the money.

Over time, we'd learn otherwise. Over time, we'd hear that he hadn't really wanted to go into law, but now he felt stuck. His unmarried sister had just had a baby boy, whom he adored. “I have to be able to buy him milk.” We urged him to think about pursuing something he really loved. After all, his large extended family was happily helping his sister raise her son.

That day at the club, he handed me a plastic straw filled with
cachaça
and honey. “You should try these. They're really good.”

By the end of a couple of hours, Molly had sung a solo, “The Girl

from Ipanema,” which she had learned at home in Portuguese without understanding any of the words; I had sung “Ten Thousand Miles” in English, accompanied by the club president's wife, who, like Molly, clearly didn't understand any of the words; Skyler had wowed everyone with some fleet-fingered classical guitar; and Peter had dutifully tossed back several shots of the high-octane
cachaça
. Life was feeling good, really good.

The sky was intensely blue, the river sparkled far below, these people seemed so happy, and we were part of the family. Just like that, or so it seemed.

The next time we would see Zeca was a week later, when he showed up at Molly's birthday party at the stone-walled restaurant in the Pousada Colonial. In clothes that hung loosely on his taut body, he hovered by the room's open French doors, downing beers and chain smoking.

Lots of people smoked in Penedo, both men and women. I'd seen a Health Department sign over a grocery store register telling men, “
Fumando é ruim para sua ereção
”—Smoking is bad for your erection. Talk about targeting your audience. But then Zeca, with his mahogany skin and easy smile under silver-rimmed sunglasses, oozed a playboy's invincibility.

Zeca declined the stew: “I don' actually like it that much,” he said confidentially (echoes of his opinion of the bossa nova). I was beginning to get the impression he was a bit of a maverick.

Katia appeared out of the kitchen with the giant cake, Molly blew out the candles, and everyone sang, “
Parabéns a você
. . .” We gathered it was “Happy Birthday.”

Like the stew, Zeca refused the cake: “I don' really eat sweets, but it look good.”

It would be some time before I'd understand why it felt like we were forcing our guests to eat the cake.

“It's weird, or just different,” Skyler would say months later, after he'd attended several birthday parties. “They don't share the cake. It's there, but no one eats it.”

A few hours later, people began to drift away.

“Do you like fishing?” Zeca asked before he left. “Good. I gonna take you fishing. My uncle, he has a fishpond.”

It seemed we were making a friend; a friend who would become one of our primary guides.

5
5

A Tenuous Foothold
A Tenuous Foothold

“O
OOH, THOSE ARE A LITTLE LONG
,” I said, eyeing Molly's navy-blue polyester pants, the bottom half of her new school uniform. It was six in the morning, the day after her birthday. Up on the third floor of the
pousada
, we were getting ready for the kids' first day of school.

“I can hem them, but will they be okay for today?”

“Yeah. It's fine. Skyler!” she shouted across the hall to where her brother was still in bed. “We need to get going!” He pulled the sheet up higher, not at all sure now about this local-school thing.

“Peter, can you go down and see if Antonio's making breakfast?” I asked as I scrambled to stuff new notebooks into their backpacks. “Antonio said he'd open early so the kids can have some breakfast before they take off.”

Molly would be taking thirteen subjects, including four sciences, religion, sociology, philosophy, and Brazilian literature—all in Portuguese. Skyler had nine. School was slated to start at seven. The Brazilian school year starts in February, so now, in mid-July, they would be entering into the second semester.

Nothing about this was sounding easy. Though we had hired a Portuguese tutor back in the States, the reality of what it might be like to not understand anything was just too distant to grasp. Despite repeated urgings to do the homework the tutor assigned—“You'll be thankful later”—at twelve and fifteen, their I'm-sure-it-will-be-fine outlook on life had won out. Now reality had arrived, like a semi ready to accelerate down a hill in the wrong lane.

I'd attended Catholic schools twice as a child, always when we'd lived abroad, first in Manila, at age six, and then in Cairo, when I was eleven and twelve. In Manila, I remember begging my mother not to send me to school. At Assumption, they were fond of telling you
that you were going to be punished tomorrow, the better to let you wallow overnight in miserable anticipation. I'd sat in front of my second-grade class in a dunce cap; stayed after school more than once to fill the chalkboard with
I will not talk
; and stood, humiliated, a second grader in the corner of the kindergarten classroom, face to the wall. All this for doing things like playing “stomp on your toes” with my partner while waiting in line to come in from recess, two-by-two like Madeline.

You'd think I would have done anything to prevent our kids from having to go through the experiences I'd been through. But I found myself laughing and saying, “Well, everybody should go to a Catholic school at least once in their life.”

It gives you entrée to that special club—the CSSC—Catholic School Survivors' Club. And since it appears that the private schools in developing countries, the schools where the local elites send their kids and where all the Brazilians we'd met in the United States said we must send ours, are frequently Catholic, I wasn't surprised that in Penedo there was no other choice. This would all be part of the experience.

After a hasty breakfast of buttery fried eggs, dry chocolate cake, and
graviola
juice, I headed out the door in front of them, wanting to snap a picture of their first walk to school. They looked preoccupied.

“How're you doing?” I asked anxiously.

“Okay,” they both said quietly.

The Brazilian school day is short. Skyler would be there for four hours each day, Molly for five. The number of kids in blue pants and white knit shirts, the standard uniform no matter which school you went to, was growing as we made our way over the broken sidewalks and up the ridge. Colegio Imaculada Conceiçao, or Imaculada, as we would come to call it, was at one end of the pleasant
praça
at the top. It was strikingly unadorned and institutional compared to the surrounding houses, with their baroque frippery or angular art deco embellishments.

Cars blocked the street at odd angles as parents dropped off kids in front. We squeezed our way in. Irma Joanna, the nun from whom I'd bought the kids' uniforms, waved us over.


Tudo bem?
” Her smile shone white in her dark face.

Iracema, the
coordenador
of the middle school, walked up and asked us how we were as well.

It was only a week after Skyler's trip to the trauma center. Sweat trickled down the small of my back as I struggled to explain, in pieced-together Portuguese, why Skyler was wearing a hat and that I hoped the teachers wouldn't ask him to take it off. I'd made sure I knew the word for
stitches
and tried to emphasize that he had nineteen.

The students gathered in the courtyard to sing a song painted on the wall with lots of references to
Deus
, the only word I could catch. Then Molly and Skyler were swept away.
Well
, I thought,
here goes
.

Four hours later, Peter and I waited for them under the voluptuous red lips painted on a hanging sign that advertised Boca Cheia, “The Full Mouth,” a
lanchonete
across the street from Imaculada, where we'd agreed to meet for lunch. Kids were beginning to spill out of the blocky yellow building. My eyes rapidly sifted through the flood of blue and white to find Molly and Skyler.

Then I spotted them, in separate groups. They seemed to have friends! Before leaving for Brazil, I'd laid out colored sheets of construction paper around our dinner table one night. “We're going to make a mobile,” I'd announced, trying to imitate the hands-on approach of the kids' small, progressive Missoula school. “You can do whatever you want with the paper, but on each piece, you're going to write what you hope to get out of this year in Brazil. Things you want to do or learn.”

Twenty minutes later, the table was covered with orange and lime-green triangles, rectangles, and Matisse-like squiggles, and Skyler had made an origami canoe. Both kids had said they hoped to “make friends.”

Now they crossed the cobbled street to where we stood.

“Molly, you're out early. How was it?”

“Mom, it was crazy! It's totally chaotic,” she started, bubbling over as usual.

We had been braced for the strict, banished-to-corners, writing-
I will not talk
-1,500-times Catholic schools of my traveling childhood. But it turned out this was the chaotic, talk-anytime, move-your-desk-
anywhere, apply-nail-polish-during-class, leave-the-room-to-answer-your-cell-phone, write-
Fuck
-on-the-board kind of Catholic school. Brazilians are all about fun.

“Skyman, what about you? How was it?”

“Fine,” he said, eyes down, tugging on the brim of his cap. He didn't offer any more.

Imaculada would become the center of Molly's social life and Skyler's nemesis. It didn't help that he was starting out the year defying the dress code by wearing a hat. And it didn't help that we'd been advised by the school's director to put him in the
Sétimo Ano
, thereby skipping the first semester of seventh grade, because they thought it would be better for him to stay with his age group. Molly dropped back to the
Primeiro Ano
, a repeat of the end of her sophomore year in high school, so that she could focus on learning Portuguese. That turned out to be a better fit in every way.

After weeks of living out of duffel bags at the Pousada Colonial, we suddenly found a house to rent for $350 a month. A professor of pedagogy at a community college down the backside of the ridge had introduced himself to us when we were catching lunch one day at Boca Cheia.


Vocês são os Americanos
,” he said—You're the Americans. “It's a pleasure . . . you can call me the Professor. I know of a house for rent, and I know the owner. I will talk with her for you.” The house was just across the plaza, four doors down from Imaculada, on the Praça Jácome Calheiros. How had we missed it?

“Be careful how you say
Jácome
,” Peter later noted. “My soccer buddies laughed hysterically when I said
Jacomé
. If you put the accent on the third syllable, it means, ‘I've already eaten,' or, more specifically, ‘I've already eaten
her
.' Get it?”

We crossed the
praça
to check it out. The house sat on one edge of the town's main ridge and was structured the way all the old houses were, like a railroad apartment, attached to buildings on either side. There were only two windows—one in the front and one in the back.

“I'm afraid it's going to be dark.” Peter was worried.

And the noise! You'd think a small upriver town might be quiet. But
huge buses, cars, and motorbikes rumbled over cobblestones three feet from the front door. It felt as though the onslaught of sound might raze the house to the ground, sound waves zapping concrete walls into nothingness. It made us wonder about taking the place at all, and, if we did, whether we could ever open the front window or, even more, the front door.

“Ohhhh! You guys! Come look out the back.” I'd just unlatched the large square of a back window and swung it open. My eyes were filling with tears.

The yard sloped steeply away into flouncy mango trees, shaggy as big-hipped English sheep dogs; coconut palms like skinny 1960s rock stars, one-legged in skintight jeans with spiky, long-haired wigs on top; and papayas, leaves like crinolines, spreading in frilly layers, spotted yellow on green. Beyond this, the view dropped away, like a Renaissance painting, to the street below, then dipped into a velvety green field, dotted with humpbacked cows and white egrets. Across the field, Bairro Vermelho, one of the poorer neighborhoods, rose up the next ridge, a wall hanging of box houses in oranges and pinks, pistachio greens and robin's-egg blues. Horses galloped down its vertical cobbled streets, their riders expertly glued to the saddle. Beyond, palm trees were silhouetted against the molten ribbon of river. Sliding off to the northwest, it split and rejoined around overgrown islands, disappearing into the hazy hills of the interior. Clumps of water hyacinths floated down, along with brightly painted motorized canoes. Most of the canoes carried fisherman standing in pairs, one throwing a net off the bow, the other steering the long-handled motor in the stern. The back-window view was a Leonardo, with its foreground, midground, and background in rich, oiled hues.

The back was the reason we decided to take the house, despite Peter's concerns that the four rooms would feel small, despite the fact that we would have to furnish it from scratch—stove, medicine cabinets, closets, and all.

One week and $3,000 worth of furniture later, we were in. I'd bought an upholstered bench just the right size to fit into the nook by the back window. The view made me gasp, right up until the end.

The front door opened onto the
praça
, with some ragtag grass and flame trees, one of many such plazas. Once a month, the glass-and-metal door would rattle open, and we'd hear a whiskey-voiced “
Oi!
” It was Ilda, our landlady, with her small, round face in dark-rimmed glasses and a head of thinning jet-black hair. A retired mathematics professor, she was small but commanding.


Tudo bem?
”—All is well? Dark eyes sparkling, she would stride into our house, her jean-clad hips slung forward, her feet sluffing along in low pumps. She always had the air of a lord surveying his estate. Of course, it was hers; but, still, her unannounced entrances were a little disconcerting.

Out in the square was a central gazebo, which was pretty despite its chipping paint and the balustrades peeling away on one side. Over time, Skyler would discover that he could climb the trees trimmed in geometric cubes and stand—“Look, Ma, no hands!”—with his head poking out the very top. He would persuade his friends Victor and Breno, and eventually feisty Ricardo, to climb into the bigger of the trees to make a fort out of hammocks and a boogie board.

It turned out that when the hot months came, the straight shot from front door to back window sucked in a welcome breeze, and the small dark bedrooms, especially with our newly installed air conditioning, were ideal retreats. Peter and I nicknamed ours “the cooler.”

We hesitated to open the windows in our front door, however. The first day we moved in, a crowd of children were looking through and shouting, “
Mohlly! Mohlly!
” How they knew her name, I don't know. When I went out to introduce myself, they asked, “
Cadê Eskyloh?
”—Where is Skyler? “Victor's?” They already knew.

One day, early on, Katia's Aunt Laura intercepted me at the market. She immediately introduced me to a cousin who ran a vegetable stand. “You must buy your vegetables from her.” And she promptly told her, and everyone else we met, that we were living at No. 52 Praça Jácome Calheiros. There would be no secrets.

We would find ourselves using “the cooler” to escape more than just the heat.

In Penedo, I found that the simple act of speaking took a lot of thought. It was like doing a math problem every time you wanted to open your mouth.

“They just know which words are masculine and which are feminine,” Peter said incredulously one day. “They don't even have to think about it!”

Every day in Brazil, I'd realize—after the fact—that I'd just said something ridiculous; and every day, I'd think how kind Brazilians are. They didn't laugh. They didn't deride. They might look momentarily confused, but it would pass as I blundered on and they teased out my meaning.

How many times did I ask Iago, the ten-year-old boy next door, to return our cake, instead of the ball? How often did I tell Bentinho, our newfound capoeira teacher, that I needed to sit and rot, instead of stretch? Funnier still, Peter, early in his Penedo soccer career, got hit with a ball in the groin and groaned, “
Minhas castanhas!
”—My cashews!—thinking
castanhas
was the word for
nuts
. Who knows if they even use that slang?

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