Ed Colby: Brazil memories
August 19, 2002
On the plane down to Rio, the Brazilians all say, “The crime is worse than in New York. Be careful.”
The nice missionary lady looks up from the Book of Romans. “If you’re lucky, they’ll leave you standing in your underpants,” she says.
When I speak Portuguese, I compensate for long-forgotten vocabulary in a uniquely American way. I talk louder. By the time we land, all the Brazilians in the forward section of economy class have heard how Jimmy and I scrapped outside a Rio de Janeiro schoolyard. They hear that after our little fight, Jimmy bought the seventh-grade class presidency for me with Baby Ruths, Juicy Fruit and Parliament cigarettes – all smuggled off the SS Brasil. They learn that I left after the seventh grade, and that I have not seen any of my classmates in 42 years. I have to fly to Rio for a weeklong school reunion to explain to Jimmy that everything is all right, forever and ever.
Contented, I recline in my seat. The rising, now falling cadences of Brazilian voices envelop me.
The next evening I catch the bus to the opening-day cocktail party in Sao Conrado. Right away I spot Suelena. I kiss her on the cheek. “It’s Eddie,” I say. She smiles sweetly, just as she did when she was 12, and says, “It’s so nice to see you.” Then I start to sob. I can’t stop. I can’t let go of her. I have no idea why. People stare. I embarrass Suelena greatly.
I don’t generally fall apart. Just so you know that. Those Rio memories were supposed to be filed, shelved, archived. But something snapped, and I was stone cold sober.
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Like a father, my old nemesis Abaete takes me gently by the arm. “Come with me, Eddie,” he says. “I’ll introduce you.”
Cathy clutches my arm, like a sister. She gives me a photo of her father playing baseball. He never had a son. He took me fishing. He’s gone now. That whole generation is gone.
I look a few classmates in the eye, and there’s no use pretending. We don’t remember. Maybe I’m an impostor.
After 42 years, my Rio best friend Mark acts as if we’ve both just walked into class following an interesting weekend, and we’re waiting for the bell to ring. He shakes my hand. No “abraco” from this Texan. He probably worries I’ll have another meltdown. He peppers his conversation with Portuguese and then laughs uproariously, even though I hardly ever get it. We were late bloomers and the smallest boys in class. My mother adored him (“the little monkey”).
He drifts away, and I find myself alone. I look around. Jimmy stands in the middle of the room. He always did. I hand him a stick of Juicy Fruit. He knows. “Vote for Eddie,” I say. He smiles faintly, then throws his arms around me. We embrace for a long time. It all comes out.
Deadpan serious, Abaete pulls me aside. He inhales solemnly on his cigarette. “Eddie,” he says, “the reason Jimmy waited for you after school is because of me. You see, we made a group. We called ourselves the ‘Jokers.’ Jimmy wanted to be a Joker, but I told him first he had to beat somebody up. I didn’t pick you. Jimmy did. But you beat him up. Afterwards I told him, ‘Jimmy, you’ll never be a Joker now.'”
Abaete makes it clear he only wants to set the record straight. But I don’t recall any of this Joker stuff. And while it’s true I took a few swings at Jimmy, I never beat anybody up.
Jimmy thinks I lived four doors from him, down by the putrid lagoon where I caught snakes. But our apartment was nestled under the arm of the Corcovado Christ, on Rua Maria Angelica, up a steep hill from the lagoon. Jimmy remembers me all right, but he also has me mixed up with somebody else. No one corroborates his story about vote buying. I have to take his word for it, because, well, I don’t remember.
I meet Mark’s sister, Lesley. She just flew down from Bahia. We dance a few numbers. Later, I ask Mark, “Didn’t you have a snake called ‘Orange Spot?'”
He stares at me. Incredulous, he says, “You remember the names of my snakes?”
“Sure,” I say. “I just never knew you had a sister.”
[Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is email@example.com]