The Quest for Samba
The last time I lived here it was different. Jessica was sixteen and her dreams revolved around an evangelical pastor who cried during sermons, but now she has a boyfriend. The last time I lived in Val’s small house tucked on the hill I could sleep during gunfire. In the emerald-green city of Rio de Janeiro I spent every night with Val’s grandson resting on my chest. Now I wait for the baby who is no longer a baby to remember me. The baby who was born on the crest of December before summer turned the city into a blazing inferno and everyone studied me with concern to see if my gringa disposition meant I would melt, or combust, or simply just die.
Now I wait for the tough skin I had to grow back and I slam my hand against Val’s leg when twenty fireworks erupt at once. Celebrations for St. George, the patron dragon slayer of Rio, the guardian of drug traffickers. Some things, however, I don’t have to wait for. Things I didn’t learn and therefore cannot lose. Things like the elusive, hungry rhythm of samba steps. No matter how many times I attempted them, I always resembled a drunken pretzel. I was a dance major for crying out loud, trained to figure steps out, but this samba, this prancing, happy-foot, crazy-hip dance…it never rested in my body. Even after hours of placing my hands on Val’s hips as she swished and swayed to the samba beat of her stereo, I still had not imbued its essence. My samba fate was predestined. I came back to Rio in 2010, with no plans to alter destiny.
In 2006, the baby cried non- stop. We all took turns nestling Jon Pedro into our bodies like a skirt fold, keeping his sharp, defiant shouts at bay. But he was quietest against my beating heart and I felt a secret pride and a connection I liked to imagine as special. Now he has a full head of kinky curls that shake ever so slightly even when he doesn’t move. He looks at me noncommittally. It’s been four years and I am merely another adult in the maze of big people that pepper his world. A white woman his sister refers to as Auntie.
Val is laughing recklessly as I make fun of myself in her high heel shoes, pretending to be Brazilian, doing my best impersonation of a dancer at carnival. She calls her daughters in to watch and laugh with her. Tears are streaming down my face we are so hysterical.
Then the music ends and Val’s voice is serious, “Jo, don’t try so hard. You can’t conquer movement. It conquers you.”
I take off her shoes and sit by Jessica’s boyfriend. I reach my hand out towards Jon Pedro and he saunters off into the kitchen. I listen for more fireworks, but all I hear is gunfire.
Jessica and I walk the hills of the Santa Teresa neighborhood, lined with crumbling blue and pink mansions and the tracks of an ancient streetcar. In Santa Teresa, locals council you to follow the trail of the tracks so you will never end up anywhere deserted. Before this walk Val pulled me into the corner of the bedroom and whispered fiercely for me to, “…talk some sense into Jessica, she spends too much time with her boyfriend!” Jessica’s coffee eyes glint in the street lamp and she entangles her fingers in mine. I chew on the weight of Val’s words in the midst of her daughter’s sweet delight.
“I prayed every day for a man like Wender. My Mom thinks I focus more on him than on my own life. But I asked for him and here he is. Not paying attention would just be ungrateful.”
I nod my head and squeeze her hand. I remember walking into Val’s house to find Jessica sitting cross -legged in her underwear enduring the stifling heat with a smile and a Bible spread open at her feet. “I just like to sit with it,” she had said, “It makes me feel peaceful.”
Two days later I am at a Mother’s Day party with Val, her entire clan and fifty other people I’ve never met, but who kiss me right on the lips when they find out I am, ‘Val’s Jo’. I sit with a can of soda and watch Val and Jessica dance samba circles around each other, hip bones hitting points in the air as if their hip bones had lips and the points were a child with a sweet face or a lover with an open mouth. Four excited senhoras are suddenly at my side, clambering about how they’ve heard I am desperate to learn samba. Me? Desperate? “No, no,” I assure them, “you must have misunderstood. I desperately CAN NOT samba, really don’t waste your time.” Oh but they are persistent, with voices that rise and fall like waterfalls on rocks in caves and so I let them tug me and nudge me until I please them with my seemingly valiant effort. I don’t believe I’ve learned anything new, but they encourage me as I imagine they would encourage a sweet foreigner who gives their national dance a sincere talking to.
Val notices the commotion and pulls me towards her and Jessica to join their secret samba society. I let her take me further into the dance, because it’s Val and it’s Mother’s Day and I am in Brazil. And that’s when, instead of trying to understand the rhythm, the rhythm, all at once, understands me. I flash on an image of a little girl in a white dress entering the center of a samba circle. Her dad’s head tilts down and his fingertips tap the rim of his hat. Her mom’s eyes are closed, sweat glistening on her breastbone, strappy red sandals cracking against the cement. Her dancing parents were in the center of the group when she broke in to join them. She wiggled off-beat for a moment while the drummers cheered and picked up their tempo and then without warning, a rhythm that had simply been acquainting itself with her teeny body abruptly remembered she was a long-lost family member. It saw her and knew her and so she danced.
Val’s excitement makes her voice ring like bells. Her eyes become round as suns as she hollers to her entire family, “Come watch Jo! Come watch Jo samba!”
I feel the difference. The light exuberance of every click-clack that my heel snaps, the cotton-candy weightlessness of my hips. The whole circle of Val’s family are clapping their hands and stomping their feet instinctively, the way fellow dancers and on-lookers in a samba circle do to encourage the rhythm the sambista is articulating with her body. Instead of shying away, I point frantically to Val’s feet. She whips off her high heels and I slip into them in one fluid movement. I understand now why this rapid trembling, why this deceivingly simple looking step, brings so much ecstasy to its worshippers. I feel like a child with a new word that is so satisfying I must repeat it over and over again. As I ricochet the rhythm off of my joints and entangle it in my muscles and as this crowd of people I love roar their celebration, I see a head of thick curls bound into the circle. The baby who is no longer a baby pushes his way through the legs of his uncle and begins shaking his tiny, chubby body at my feet. His eyes shine, sweat drips down the back of my neck and he claps his tiny hands, saying my name over and over again, like a chant.