Image from Eric Drooker

Several years ago, I moved with my husband and three young sons to northeast Brazil. We lived in Itapuã, on the outskirts of the city of Salvador. The mato, a stretch of coastal desert, began behind the walls of our condominium: dune-slope; soursop; ash-drift. In a dry tree a vulture settled, its wings collapsing like an umbrella.

Famous Brazilian poet and bossa nova lyricist Vinícius de Moraes lived in the bairro of Itapuã in the early seventies when it was still a sleepy little beach town. Before we moved there, I’d listened over and over to the singer Maria Bethânia’s version of Vinícius’s song “Tarde em Itapoa.” Driving my kids to preschool in the freezing February rain, I’d let Vinícius’s words warm me: “Listening to the sea in Itapoa / Talking about love in Itapoa… ” I imagined a slower-paced, more sensual life—sitting on the beach, drinking coconuts, talking about love.

But Itapuã had changed in the past forty years. Many of the once-pristine beaches were seedy and polluted. The town itself was congested, the streets loud and colorful: car horns and pulsing music, storefronts strung with pots and pans, hammocks, a bloody heart hanging in the window of the butcher’s shop.

On the commute home from school, I gripped the steering wheel, and tried to avoid the daredevil drivers. The sweat soaked through the back of my dress, and I averted my eyes from the legless beggar on Dorival Caymmi. Instead my gaze flitted to the boys practicing capoeira on the beach by the highway–their graceful kicks and feints. I had to remind myself that if I looked, Itapuã still held some of the slow-paced sensuality I had been looking for. Especially when the heat of the day had cooled, and I could feel the same, pleasant evening shiver Vinícius had written about–the same serene spaces “without yesterday and without tomorrow.”

Not far from where we lived, by the mystical black lagoon of Abaeté with its full-moon shimmer against the white dunes, Vinícius had wooed Gesse Gessy, a baiana actress who would become the seventh of his nine wives. He drank cachaça and strummed his guitar and brooded.

Having foreseen the impermanence of passion and love’s fleeting essence as a young man, he penned his “Sonnet on Separation.”

Suddenly the calm became the wind / That extinguished the last flame in the eyes / And passion became foreboding

In the mato behind our house, the wind had carved a hard-won calm into the dunes–the wild, dry scrublands. Few species flourished here: breadfruit, papaya, the occasional coconut palm. I could see one passion fruit plant from our bedroom window. The spiny, drought-birthed vine, and the white and purple petals like a mane of untamed curls clung to dry bark, suckered toward the root.

On Fridays, Dete, our housekeeper, made suco de maracujá. I came to crave it—the sweet yellow-orange passion fruit juice cut with ice, watered down, pale, almost transparent.

I drank it at night, after the children were in bed, black specks of ground-up seeds spinning in the glass.

Dan and I lay in the hammock on the porch, rehashing our day, talking about our students, school gossip, our sons. The evening air was so gentle it seemed to hold us suspended, like floating in a pool that is exactly 98.6 degrees. Our bodies pressed one against the other, hip-to-hip, thigh-to-thigh. A breeze rustled the palm fronds, light as Vinícius’s fingers on the strings. I could almost see what made Gesse fall for him, even though she was twenty-six years younger. His voluptuous bossa novas were on the lips of every Brazilian woman reaching to pin a shirt to a clothesline or washing her hair in the shower, yet Vinícius sang them to Gesse, each melody a gleaming seine tossed out.

The word for “hammock” in Portuguese is rede, net. Some places in the Amazon, everyone sleeps in redes, strung up in the trees. I couldn’t sleep in one, though. It felt too temporary, too taxing on my spine. But lying on the veranda in the evening, I liked how the hammock enfolded my tired body, conformed to my shape, caught me. I liked the tight weave of the canvas against my bare legs–drift-net that held me, even as my mind refused to be still.

The lizard on the wall opened his mouth, as though to yawn, then darted into the shadows.

“I’m tired,” Dan said.

“Me too. But I feel so wide awake.”

“Mmm.” He closed his eyes, leaning his head on my shoulder. I stroked his hair.

I could mull a single word for days. We ate Nepalese food in small dim restaurants or had popcorn for dinner. We made love at noon. At least that is how I remember it.

He had the infuriating habit of being a good sleeper: able to fall asleep easily, and sleep late when he had the chance, and to do without sleep and not fall apart the way I did.

Sleep, when it came for me, only skimmed the surface. I heard the older boys talking in their beds in the dark. Even before the baby woke at five, I heard his cries from the room down the hall.

I felt hollowed out: a pith-scraped shell.

It was sleep I longed for. Sleep, and also time, those stretches of hours before children: blank as the mato, beautiful in their sparseness. Once I stared out the window and my mind was like that—the still graceful arch of a tree branch, the dry, thorny underbrush of abstract thought. I read Wittgenstein. I could mull a single word for days. We ate Nepalese food in small dim restaurants or had popcorn for dinner. We made love at noon. At least that is how I remember it.

In Itapuã, exhaustion to me became an ardent blankness, consummation constantly deferred.

In the corner of the bedroom, the mosquito coil unwound itself as smoke. Is this what happens when you’ve never lived alone? The smallest spaces blaze— the ribs’ kindling, the tongue’s lit wick.

The passion-fruit vine is shallow-rooted, a woody perennial that sends out climbing tendrils. The leaves—three-lobed, finely toothed—are deep green and glossy on top, paler and dull underneath. The one that we could see from our bedroom window, just past the wall of the condominium, wrapped itself around a dying tree. It bloomed wantonly, dropped its petals, then its rotting fruit into the underbrush. Through the shards of glass at the top of the condominium’s walls, the dunes reflected back in tinted fragments: blue, green, yellow, rose.

An electric wire ran the circumference, a razor-edged creeper barbed with iron thorns. With spreading urbanization in Itapuã, the threat of crime had wound itself into the rhythm of daily life. We heard about armed assaults along the road, about people held up on the beach across the street. But inside the modest gated community where we lived, our children roamed freely, climbed the mango tree, floated in the placid blue swimming pool.

Only wind entered our walled city. And smoke. Somewhere someone was burning trash. Somewhere someone flicked a cigarette carelessly out a car window, and a fire touched off, scurried through the mato.

“I wanted to love,” begins one of Vinícius’s songs, “but I was afraid.”

There was a statue of Vinícius in the praça that we drove past on our way to and from the international school where we worked. The cobblestone square where he sat was between the small highway and the beach. It was comforting to see him there: his round bronze belly, his pose pensive and relaxed, staring out at the sea of Itapuã he’d loved.

In the corner of the bedroom, the mosquito coil unwound itself as smoke. Is this what happens when you’ve never lived alone? The smallest spaces blaze— the ribs’ kindling, the tongue’s lit wick.

Anxious and short on sleep, I angered easily. I snapped at Dan about small things—forgetting to pack Ezra’s lunch or to get the cash for Dete’s bus fare.

He was mostly patient with me, but he could get irked, too. “You need to wipe down the counter, or we’ll get ants.”

“I did.”

“Look at this.” He ran a sponge over the linoleum, squeezed it, wiped again.

“Fine. Whatever.” I looked away, out the back door at the broken glass on the wall. I had stared at the shards so often, I had memorized their exact angles and spikes, the different shades of blue and green and brown.

I would never be a perfectionist like Dan. I was my own kind of perfectionist, setting difficult standards for myself, feeling like a failure for not having won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, or reproaching myself for my still-flabby post-pregnancy belly.

Most of our conversations involved logistics. It was as though we were generals of a small battalion, constantly coordinating and refining our tactics. Who will get up with the baby tomorrow? Should we ask Dete to put him down earlier for his nap? I need to be at school early on Tuesday for a meeting. Don’t forget the check for after-school capoeira.

From the window, I watched the passionflower bloom and fade. A single, fragrant flower is born at each node on the new growth. The bloom is a fringed corona of straight, white-tipped rays, purple at the base.

It’s easy, this far into a marriage for passion to wane, to sucker toward these old, gnarled roots.

To avoid this takes great attention: pruning, water, compost.

“I wanted to love,” begins one of Vinícius’s songs, “but I was afraid.”

Sometimes the body recoils at touch. Sometimes it reaches toward it, inexorably.

I had always needed less physical affection than Dan. The challenges of living in a different country also/too made me draw into myself, to seek out solitude where I could find it. Dan wanted more hugs, more affection. Secretly I believed that Dan’s way was better than mine. I wished that was how I was, too. There were times when he bent to kiss my neck, and I flinched.

Still, we found common ground in the evenings on the hammock. We lay there together, our bodies pressed up against each other, his arm around me. We talked, or we were quiet, watching the shadows of the palm fronds on the wall.

Look at Vinícius: passion blooms, withers, blooms again. Writes a song called “How Insensitive.” Another called “No More Blues.” Leaves for Argentina, Los Angeles, Paris: ambassador of misery, attaché of woe.

What need for sleep in this humid, overgrown littoral zone? Perhaps the desire is better than sleep itself: the perfect Platonic slumber, planned for, schemed and imagined, never realized.

Since I couldn’t sleep, I’d taken to drinking coffee. It alleviated the problem, at least initially. Exhaustion evaporated, the way the tropical sun burned off early fog over the bay.

The coffee was black and strong. There were thermoses of it set out in the teachers’ lounge at school, along with small glass cups. The first, bitter sips were invigorating. I felt important. Invincible, even. I straightened the papers on my desk. I took notes at meetings with the principal. I planned ambitious programs—a college application orientation starting in ninth grade, and essay workshops for juniors and seniors. But the focus was short-lived and gradually faded into a free-floating agitation I couldn’t place, an inability to do anything.

Is this what they think of passion here, then? Sour pucker of the flesh, pulpy innards thick with seed. To cut the bite, it takes spoonfuls of cane sugar.

On the way home at midday, I stopped at the fruit stand by the side of the road. Just looking at the fruit calmed me: the neat lines of mangoes and papayas, the bananas and glossy, bell-shaped cashew apples.

I bought a sack of maracujá. The fruits were yellow spheres with tough rinds: smooth and waxy. Within a few days, they’d be shrunken, their skin slack, shriveled, and brown–a different fruit.

The inside, though, would be unchanged: a cavity filled with double-walled, membranous sacs of orange-colored, pulpy juice and hundreds of small, hard, black seeds. The flavor is musky, slightly acidic. It’s appealing, but only palatable when sweetened, in juice, or in a mousse that, like most Brazilian desserts, consists primarily of sweetened condensed milk.

Is this what they think of passion here, then? Sour pucker of the flesh; pulpy innards
thick with seed. To cut the bite, it takes spoonfuls of cane sugar—Dete poured it straight from the bag into the blender’s whirring blades.

Passion: From the proto-Indo-European base pei– “to hurt” (cf. Sanskrit pijati “reviles, scorns,” Greek pema “suffering, misery, woe,” Old English feond “enemy, devil,” Gothic faian “to blame”).

But this is where etymology branches off, its supple tendrils curling in different directions. Not amorous passion, not romantic love. This is an older, sterner passion. The word contains a world of suffering, the vine inscribing the lashes, the wounds, the crown of thorns.

“The name passionflower—flos passionis—arose from the supposed resemblance of the corona to the crown of thorns, and of the other parts of the flower to the nails, or wounds, while the five sepals and five petals were taken to symbolize the ten apostles—Peter… and Judas… being left out of the reckoning” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1885).

This intricate, fraught flower is called by other names in other places. Some are variations of Christ-related imagery, others entirely unconnected: mountain sweet cup; clock-flower; lilikoi.

Can language allow something to transcend itself? By calling something by another name, can we escape the context that roots it in our imaginations?

White-and-purple crown. Shattered chalice. Constantly astonished clock face, time fragmented, wriggling in all directions, as though it could get free.

Vinícius’s song “Felicidade” (“Happiness”) goes, “Sadness has no ending. Happiness does.”

Sometimes I listened to Dan speaking in Portuguese to the neighbors, and I marveled at the ease and strangeness of it, how this man whom I had known since we were twelve years old could speak this other language effortlessly, could pull new words seemingly from air.

Passion: from late Latin use of passio, to render the Greek pathos.

Once passion had seemed dangerous, extending its wild, green-margined offshoots in unpredictable directions. More than a decade past the drama of our early twenties, that ardor seemed—well, quainter perhaps, or more stylized, like the bizarre but structurally astute blooms of the flower that I watched from my window: anthers, filaments, the female stigma with its sprinkling of golden pollen grains.

Now I could read Vinícius’s “Sonnet on Separation” academically, dispassionately, as a map of a foreign place, a landscape I found almost impossible to believe I once inhabited.

Passion became foreboding / And the still moment became drama.

I saw now that it could turn in both directions. Drama can settle back into stillness; foreboding recedes into a different sort of passion.

Sometimes I listened to Dan speaking in Portuguese to the neighbors, and I marveled at the ease and strangeness of it: how this man whom I had known since we were twelve years old could speak this other language effortlessly, could pull new words seemingly from air. He was both familiar and foreign, charming and unknowable.

The roots of passion mean “to suffer,” but also “to endure.”

In the late afternoons, shirtless and barefoot, our sons played capoeira on the grass with the other boys—kicking and falling, clapping and spinning.

Capoeira is a form of self-defense, somewhere between dance and martial art. You move within the roda, the circle of participants. You move within the confines of the dance. , a cartwheel; meia lua, half-moon; benção, a blessing.

This is how we moved as well: we pushed the stroller along the cobbled paths, within the confines of the walls that held us. We ate breakfast, we drove to work, we brushed our teeth. The circle was fluid but unfaltering: the week’s constant, reassuring meter; the clock’s insistent, rhythmic roda.

Vinícius believed, supremely, in form, in the beauty of consciously chosen constraints. (Surely—why else would he venture into marriage nine times?) Early in his poetic career, he abandoned free verse for metrical precision. His subject remained the untamed realm of romantic and sexual love, but within the confines of the classical decasyllabic line, his words twining the strict trellis of the sonnet.

Later Vinícius became better known for his bossa nova lyrics than for his poems. (He wrote the words to the famous song “Girl from Ipanema,” with music by Antônio Carlos Jobim.) At the time, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, some saw bossa nova as a tuneless, lazy kind of music lacking structure and melody. In fact, it’s a subtle, rhythmically complex and demanding genre; another way of expressing passion within a disciplined form.

Dark comes early in Salvador unfailingly, disregarding seasons. Lying on our backs in the hammock, we gazed up at unfamiliar stars: Scorpio, Southern Cross, the Scales. Venus’s unblinking beacon.

Sometimes fear found me here, suddenly, inexplicably. Or a strange and sleepless calm. Or, sometimes, grateful astonishment.

When I couldn’t sleep, I lifted the edge of the mosquiteiro, the filmy fabric full of tiny holes. I slipped into my sons’ room and watched them, breath rising and falling. Beneath their separate nets, they thrashed in sleep, silvery catch that I imagined would, if I could hold it, hold me still.

Sleep itself began to seem a relic, scrap of a torn garment we no longer needed.

This is what happens when you’ve never lived alone. Your dreams merge. United mouths become foam, / And upturned hands become astonished. The body beside you blurs, even within the airy margins of the mosquito net. Difficult to make out its boundaries, impossible to imagine it not there.

Eleanor Stanford’s book, The Book of Sleep, was published by Carnegie Mellon Press in 2008. Her poems and essays appear in Ploughshares, the Harvard Review, the Massachusetts Review, and other journals.

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