Flesh and Bone and Water
A few weeks ago, I looked you up online for the first time. It was easy to find you. There are many André Cabrals in the world, but not in Londres. I saw a photo of you. You look the same—just old. I am old too, unfortunately. I found your work address and your email, but it didn’t seem right, after so many years—email is too instant. So I’m writing you a letter.
Do you ever think of us? Probably not, but you should.
I know you’ve lived in Londres for many years and that you’re a doctor. Of course you are. You have two daughters, don’t you? That’s what I heard from your father, before he died. Two inglesinhas, who could have imagined it? It must be cold over there.
I’ve never been to Europe. I’ve never even left Brazil, but that’s OK—I never expected to. How could I complain? Look at where I’m living. It’s beautiful and safe. Children grow up wild, like Indians. You can smell the jungle wherever you go. I’m not at home at the moment, though. I’m in Belém, visiting my daughter.
One day I will come and see Europe: Paris, Londres, Ireland, Germany. My daughter, Iracema, would love that. (She’s
training to be a doctor too. Isn’t that funny?) Those are the ones that appeal to me, the cold places, because I’ve never been cold. Let’s see. Though the few gringos who come here tell me not to bother—they prefer Brazil. Our country seduces them, makes them crazy. They don’t know what it’s really like.
I will write to you again. I have a lot to tell you. I will make you wait, just as you made us wait.
That was the first letter. I didn’t tell anyone about it. Not even my wife, Esther. The paper smelled woody, humid, faintly tropical. The past has a certain scent, don’t you think? To me, it smells like Brazil. I held the letter to my face, inhaled, and felt the years dissolve. I could be seventeen again, just a boy. I hadn’t seen Luana in almost thirty years. There was no return address.
I read the letter at work, between patients, read it again several times and stuffed it into the pocket of my blazer. It stayed there for a few weeks. Sometimes I would reach for it in my pocket, touch its edges, and feel my skin go numb. I wanted to look her up on the Internet, but I couldn’t remember her surname—or did I ever know it? Papai would have known, but he was long gone. To me she was just Luana. Luana Costa? Luana Santos? I tried some common surnames. Dozens of other Luanas stared back at me from my screen, posing in mirrors, pouting, younger than Luana would be now, older than she was back then.
If Mamãe hadn’t died, none of this would have happened. I would still be in Rio de Janeiro, married to a Brazilian woman from a good family, living in our old flat, overlooking the beach. My wife and I would have raised our children the way we had
been raised—by benevolent black women who sleep in a small bedroom behind the kitchen. Dinner parties in Ipanema, Leblon, and Copacabana, weekends in Teresópolis and Búzios, and holidays in Europe, where we would dream of living.
Instead, I’m living alone in a one-bedroom flat on Albion Road in Stoke Newington, London. Esther still lives at our house on Winston Road, two minutes’ walk away—the house we bought after we got married twenty years ago, when it was still relatively cheap round here. Her family is nothing like mine—English and Jewish, or Jew-ish, as she used to say. We have two daughters, Beatriz and Hannah, and we raised them ourselves. Beatriz is named after Mamãe. I call her Bia; everyone else in England calls her Bee. She wouldn’t exist if Mamãe hadn’t died. Every day I walk to the practice, I walk home, I eat alone. My life is small and compact. My bedroom faces the road and I hear cars in my sleep. You wouldn’t believe the rent I’m paying for this shithole. Being a GP—tending to all those mad people and their non-illnesses—keeps me occupied for around 45 hours a week, but what about the other 123?
Mamãe died in a car accident in January 1985, on the street where I grew up. Everything was subsequent to that. The dictatorship ended that year, but I don’t remember how I felt about it. Mamãe was dead. What more was there to feel? Papai went back to his surgery. My brother, Thiago, and I went back to school. People remarked on how well we were coping. But we weren’t. Her absence was quiet and constant, like mild tinnitus. Our flat felt empty, even with five of us living there. Sometimes I thought I could hear her calling our maids, “Rita! Luana!”—her voice bright and rasping—or I’d see a flash of pink and orange in the corner of my eye. She loved bright colors. She always smiled. At night I could hear Thiago, who was six years old, crying in his bedroom, being sung to sleep
by Rita. Crying was for women and children, so I didn’t cry. In my eyes, I wasn’t a child. I was a man without a mother. My seventeenth birthday came and went.
The last time I went to Brazil was for Papai’s funeral—he had a heart attack on my fortieth birthday. We canceled the party and flew to Rio, the whole family. It did make me wonder: Did he do it on purpose, to get my attention? I hadn’t been back for a while. That was six years ago. London is my home now. It’s been my home for a long time. I’m a British citizen—have been for years. It didn’t occur to me, when I left Brazil, that I would miss the place. I was only eighteen; what did I know? I wanted to get away from all the stupid things I’d done, and the people who knew about them. Now I find myself thinking, several times a day, about the green wildness of the trees on any street in Ipanema. Thin vines snaking around telephone lines. The sting of the Atlantic in my eyes. The people, their breezy manners.
In my dreams, everything about Brazil is exaggerated. The leaves are so green and the sea so blue. In one dream, it was raining and the sky was a stark gray. I was on Ipanema beach in my swimming shorts, feeling the downpour. All I knew was that I had to swim to Cagarras, the uninhabited archipelago that you can see from the shore. I waded into the water and swam towards the islands, my eyes open in the salt water. I climbed on land, lay down on the rocks, and felt the sun sizzle my skin, like bacon in a pan.
The Cagarras dream isn’t the important one. I’ve only had it twice. The important one is about our maid Luana, Rita’s daughter. Even before she started writing to me, I had been dreaming about her at least once a week. It was maddening. It goes like this: We’re swimming in the river, in the Amazon, trying to get to the other side. An impossible task, because the
river is too wide. I’m seventeen years old again. My arms are slim, my chest hairless, my stomach flat. My young body is miraculous to me. Luana is swimming ahead and I can’t keep up. I can see her black hair, bobbing ahead in the distance. I sink to the riverbed, and cool water enters my lungs.
I first had that dream a year and a half ago, last July, after my forty-fifth birthday party. I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday, but Esther insisted. We were still together then. She was always good at parties, just like Mamãe. She organized the guest list, the Brazilian catering—salgadinhos, churrasco, caipirinhas—and booked the band, who played Brazilian songs in our living room. The musicians arrived an hour before the guests: two men and a woman, carrying instruments and amplifiers. Esther was upstairs getting ready, so I welcomed them into the house and performed the ritual of being Brazilian among other Brazilians—I was out of practice, it took some effort—laughing and joking, complaining about the weather, talking about where we were from. They were impressed that I’d been here for so long, that I was a British citizen. I told them that when I arrived in the eighties, I rarely saw other Brazilians in the street—not even tourists.
“And now we’re taking over Londres!” said the woman.
Carolina, that was her name. I looked at her, she smiled, and it hit me: she looked so much like Luana. Carolina had brown eyes, not green, and she wore her hair in long braids, not in a bun; her skin was darker, perhaps, and her lips didn’t have that deep curve, but when she smiled, meu Deus. She was talking about where she was from—Recife—and where she lived—Walthamstow—and I carried on nodding, responding, performing, but my body felt weak, my hearing muffled.
Luana. Our empregada, our maid. I hadn’t thought of her in years. OK, that’s not true. Of course I thought of her—how
could I not?—but only briefly. Her face was just one of the hundreds that flipped through my mind on any given day: ex-girlfriends, dead relatives, long-lost friends, patients, and colleagues—but I tried not to linger on my memories of Luana, of what happened between us. When I met Esther, I locked those memories away at the back of my mind.
“Where should we set up?” said one of the other musicians, interrupting my thoughts.
That night, Esther wore a shimmering navy dress, her curly dark hair pinned up, her body slim and graceful; she walked, in heels, from group to group, making sure that everyone was having a good time. A few hours in, when everyone had been fed and greeted, I was nicely drunk. I spent much of the night in the kitchen, away from the band, from Luana’s double, but I could still hear her sweet voice, singing old Tom Jobim songs. Esther’s friend Nina dragged me back to the living room, shouting, “Stop hiding, André!” I gave a speech in which I declared my love for Esther and thanked her for throwing the party, then retired to the end of the garden to smoke a cigarette.
“Where have you been?” said Esther when I returned, holding an empty glass.
“Just getting some air.”
I took a bottle of prosecco from the table and refilled my glass.
She sniffed. “Have you been smoking?”
“I’ve only had one.”
“But you told me you were giving up.”
Next to us, on the makeshift dance floor, our daughters were dancing and singing along to the band’s rendition of “A Minha Menina” by Os Mutantes. Carolina was playing an egg shaker and singing backing vocals, but I kept my eyes on the girls. They didn’t speak Portuguese, but knew the words to a
few songs—I raised them on Mamãe’s old records. Hannah was fifteen and Beatriz almost eighteen, not a child anymore. She resembled my mother, her namesake, the most, with her mercurial smile and long, thin limbs. Hannah wore thick glasses, as I did at her age, but the rest of her was pure Feldman, from her pale skin to her curious, headstrong nature.
“Look, Esther,” I said. “Look at them.”
Hannah pushed her glasses up her nose and waved at us. Esther laughed, her face radiant. I put my arm around her and she turned to kiss me. Everything would be fine. The night would end, the singer would go home, and Luana would return to the depths of my mind, a small bedroom behind the kitchen.
But I woke from the dream the next morning covered in sweat, my mouth dry, Luana’s face imprinted in my mind. Her face, not Carolina’s. We had been swimming in the Amazon, just as when we were teenagers. Esther had her back towards me, wearing a white vest, her skin tender and pale. I stroked her arm and she murmured.
“Good morning, querida,” I said.
She turned to face me, her eyes still closed and smudged with makeup, a small smile on her lips. Her dark curls were loose, spread across the pillow. Yes, life was better then.
“How’s your head?” I said.
“Not bad. And yours?”
Luana was from a different time and place, so far from London in 2013. More suited to dreams.
“Strangely, I feel fine,” I said. “Maybe not when I get up.”
“Urgh, do we have to get up?”
We had stayed up till 2:00 a.m., long after the band had left and the girls had gone to bed. A few friends had lingered (let’s be honest, they were more Esther’s friends than mine) to drink whiskey, smoke cigarettes and even, at one point, a
joint. What had we talked about, for all those hours? I wasn’t sure, but I remembered a lot of laughter. I had played along, despite feeling as if I were elsewhere, watching the scene from another room, another continent.
“You look beautiful,” I whispered, trying to lock the memories back in their vault.
But they kept coming. I remembered another birthday: my eighteenth in Rio, the party I threw with Rita and Luana’s help, at our flat.
“Hmm, I bet I don’t,” said Esther, her eyes open a slit.
Luana in the river. Luana serving our meals, day after day. Luana after my party. Luana laughing like a child. She was a child and so was I.
Esther put an arm around my body and her lips to mine. Her eyes were now open. “Come on, before the kids wake up.”
I put my hand under her vest. We made love quickly, we knew exactly what the other wanted, but every few seconds, my mind wandered. To that birthday party, twenty-seven years before. Esther arched her back, her legs locked behind me. Finally I returned, for a minute or two, and belonged solely to the present.
But it didn’t last. She left me earlier this year, in June. It’s now December.