WRITING excerpts…

The Red Suitcase…travels Brazil


Xander couldn’t quite recall the first time Lalo, Gil, and Chico came to Praia de Sossego to play. They’d met at Geladinho, the family’s ice cream parlor when he first arrived in Brazil. Soon thereafter, the cousins were stopping by his house on the beach. The boys were already avid surfers. Immediately they became Xander’s Portuguese instructors, then they gradually taught him how to catch the waves lazily breaking along the shoreline. At their house behind the ice cream shop, they generously shared their toys and the delicious variety of tropical ice cream flavors. Xander was often invited to spend the night or eat a meal. Within a few months, in the most open and natural way, they incorporated Xander into their family, helping him to access the world of Bahia where he had arrived by no choice of his own.

Together the little gang had roamed around Vilas on their bikes, played on the beach, usually under the watchful eye of an adult, or occasionally escaped to the video game parlor where the owner rented out Nintendos one real an hour. Next to the video parlor were a bar, a tobacco shop, and a newsstand. Lalo at nearly ten was already a hail fellow well-met. Everywhere he went, he made friends, charmed people, and opened doors which were supposed to be closed.

Sometimes the boys pooled their spare change for Lalo to coax the newsstand owner to sell them copies of Playboy magazine. Xander contributed to the conspiracy by finding a safe place to stash the magazines. This turned out to be an empty suitcase under his bed which he believed would not be opened until it was time to travel again. The plan had worked perfectly. The boys would disappear into Xander’s room, close the door, and pour over the centerfolds. Xander guessed that Dona Amelia, their housekeeper, might have been on to their stash, but she never said a word. The magazines were only discovered a half year later when his mother fished the suitcase out from under his bed to pack for a trip.

An open rucksack starred up at Xander. He considered whether or not he was merely chasing an illusive memory? Giving up the privileges of what friends called an “awesome” job to travel into a hazy past, did that really make sense? I can’t be certain unless I actually try, he told himself. This trip could be the biggest adventure of my life, or as Sarah asserted, it was nothing more than a flight from reality.

His departure for Brazil wasn’t entirely auspicious. It had catapulted an end to a relationship. This was the longest relationship Xander had with a girlfriend and a lovely girlfriend at that. As he reflected, he knew that he had to find himself before he could commit to someone else. And like many friends, he agreed that twenty seven was not the time in a young man’s life to settled down, especially here in foggy London.

After all, his parents had trotted the globe constantly for more than thirty years before settling in Edinburgh. Even now, they weren’t all that settled. Randall took many short and medium consultancies overseas while Corina seemed to always be going somewhere to a conference or for a short writing gig. To Xander the five years he spent in living in Brazil from nine to fourteen made the longest stretch that he’d lived anywhere as a child.

When he received an email from Lalo with an invitation to come to Salvador before the 2016 Olympic Games which would be played in Rio, he couldn’t resist. Fantasies about reconnecting with his old gang in Vilas had begun popping into his mind with increasing frequency especially when he was sitting in front of the computer screen trying to solve complicated programming problem. He felt the sensations of the Atlantic breeze ruffling his curly dark hair, felt the sting of salt and sunshine on his shoulders, and the rubbing of sand between his toes.

For the past five years he’d spent everyday inside looking at a flickering screen. There wasn’t any doubt, he was craving physical action in the arms of nature. The World Cup invitation could provide the escape route he needed. He knew that Sarah wouldn’t want to go along. She detested football and didn’t like hot places. She would never be a surfer. In fact, she barely knew how to swim.

A holiday they’d taken in the Cinque Terre the past summer had been a minor disaster. He’d wanted to hike the mountainous paths among the five villages. After the first day, Sarah flatly refused to undertake another hike, insisting that they should go by train or boat. She had not even packed a bathing suit. When Xander bought her a surprise Italian bikini, she’d balked at the idea of wearing it. Of course, her smooth English skin was linen white from zero sun exposure in London. He’d told her in all honestly that she looked sensational in the bikini with her glittering auburn hair and perfect curves in all the right places.

A month after Lalo’s email arrived, when Xander finally mentioned the invitation. he had added that he was thinking of spending some time in Brazil before the big event. That he wanted to become reacquainted with Brazil after being away for fifteen years.

“I thought we were going to Norway this summer. How are you going to get leave from your job if you spend most of your vacation in Brazil? “

He’d told her that Chase, his boss, was willing to give him an extra two weeks leave, without pay, this year. Actually, Xander had been prodding Chase for an extended leave of two months total as his goal.

“Two weeks unpaid leave, but how are we going to able to afford the first and last month’s rent for a bigger flat, if you take unpaid vacation?”

Sarah had the idea of moving ever since they began living together, over one year now. Things were a bit tight in his place even though it was spacious for a bedsitter. The bathroom and kitchenette were nicely remolded, and there was even a separate water closet. But, when they were both in the flat over a long weekend it felt cramped and they started to get on each other’s nerves. Fortunately, Sarah, a pediatric nurse, worked the evening shift during the week and had a weekend shift twice each month giving them both a bit of breathing space.

The smoldering coals burst into flames two months later when they were having dinner with Chase one Saturday night. Chase raised his wine glass and proposed a toast to permission granted for Xander’s extended leave request.

“You’re going to be a free man, Xander. I just got approval for your leave of absence this morning from Michael. What do you say about that old man? Of course, everyone wants you back in September with a lot of good stories to tell us.”

Sarah, her sweet, composed self, said nothing. As soon as they got home she disappeared into the bathroom to take off her make up and shower. When she emerged her eyes were pink and puffy. Xander could see that she’d been crying. He felt fully remorseful.

“I’m so sorry, sweetie. I knew you’d be upset. I didn’t have the heart to tell you before I got the final word from Chase. Really, I didn’t want to hurt you, but I need to do this. It’s not about you; it’s about me.”

“No! It’s about us,” she whimpered with tears beginning to brim up in her sensitive blue eyes.

Xander wasn’t good with crying. He’d never seen his mother or his father cry. He didn’t have any sisters or brothers, for that matter, which might have given him some experience with crying. He felt awkward and ill at ease with Sarah’s emotional display even though he could empathize with what she was be feeling.

“Sarah, it’s not about us; it’s about me. I’m sorry if this seems selfish. I just need to get away from my job, my life in London…

“You mean our life in London,” her voice pitched up an octave.

“Not our life. Just life. This isn’t the life I want. I know it seems like a good life, but I’m restless. Besides, I don’t feel like I belong here. I’m not English.”

“You’re as English as you are anything, Xander!” “Maybe you’re right about that. What I do know is that I need to get away for a while and this is my chance. I lived in Brazil longer than any other place when I was a kid…”

“So what were you planning to do? Pretend to go to Brazil for two weeks then send me a dear Sarah email saying “…by the way, just wanted to let you know that I won’t be coming back for a few months”?

Xander felt like a cad. He knew that he hadn’t figured out how to handle this. For him, it was much harder than solving a complex programming problem. After the quarrel, Sarah didn’t mention his travel plans again. She acted as if everything were normal. He was relieved and more than willing to go along with this.

The evening before his departure for Brazil, Xander arrived home a bit later than usual. As he opened the door something felt different. Looking around he noticed the picture hung over the sofa was missing. It was a picture of the lake district which Sarah had given him as a birthday present. When he retracted the closet door to get a change of clothes, a gapping hole stared at him where Sarah’s dresses, blouses and pants had crowded aside the scant clothes he possessed.

His throat went dry and tight with shock. He hadn’t expected her to just move out without saying a word. Regret flooded over him. Re-tracing the past weeks in his mind, Sarah had seemed her usual sensitive self, always solicitous of his feelings, asking about his preferences for food or how they would relax during free moments. She’d babbled on as usual when arriving home from her shift at the hospital, telling him about a new patient, the child’s worried parents, or that her sister had called and spent a long time complaining about how she wasn’t getting along with their mother.

These were things which had become normal to Xander, even if he wasn’t especially interested, he listened. He might have preferred to talk about a story he’d heard on the BBC or an article he’d read the Economist which always overflowed with information about happenings across the globe.He never suspected that Sarah might be capable of being secretive or plotting. But here it was; she had been plotting without so much as a hint. The tables had turned, and he did not like the feeling, not at all.

Then he saw a slip of yellow lined paper on the counter. It had been torn from a small notepad they kept in the kitchen to make shopping lists.

“Good bye, good luck, don’t call, don’t write, it’s over!”

Xander panicked. Who was going to take care of his broad leafed Fire Chief caladium and the red and orange flecked mango croton he had been tending for the past five years?

From: CEM <CEM101047@gmail.com.UK> To: machado.xanadu3588@gmail.com.UK Date: Tues, July 11, 2016 at 0:19 AM Subject: Suitcase
Dear Xander,
I’m sorry that I couldn’t see you before your departure. I had too much work to get done for the conference in Berlin next week to make the trip down. I’m sure that you’ll enjoy the change from London. It’s great chance to follow up on those years in Salvador.
I have a big favor to ask of you. I received an email yesterday from my friend Laura, who lives in Belo Horizonte. The last time I visited Brazil ten years ago, I left a small red suitcase at her place. The suitcase isn’t important, but I do want its contents. Laura and Fernando are downsizing to a smaller apartment and need to clean out a number of things including the suitcase. They are moving the end of July, Please go to Belo Horizonte before you stop in Rio and start the travels you have planned.
I’ve made reservation for Rio/Belo Horizonte/Rio so you can connect directly tomorrow morning. And, oh, I almost forgot, the combination for the suitcase is 11-15-6 (r-l-r).
You can reach Laura directly at her email below or call at 031-66-45-27.
XOX to you and to Sarah mom

“A Little Bit of Italy” from HOW I LEARNED TO TRAVEL

  “I’m going build a swimming,” my father announced.  “New neighbors plan to build a house next door.  When that happens, we won’t be able to get a bulldozer onto our property, so it’s now or never.”

Even before meeting the new neighbors, they had secured a place in my heart.  After all, they were partially responsible for a swimming pool at my house. Why wouldn’t I like them!

One afternoon months later, I was riding my sky blue three speed Schwinn bike past the just finished new house.  A small, stick figure-like woman hopped out of a car parked in the driveway.  She waved and called out to me,

“Where do you live?”

I pointed to the house next door.   Then she continued with her questions:  how old are you?  Where do you go to school?  What grade are you in?  Finally, she pronounced

“Well, you’re going to have new neighbors in just a few weeks, and one is my daughter, Barbara.  She’s nine.”

The news made a bubble of expectations in my tummy.   Not only were the new neighbors bringing us a swimming pool, but they were bringing me a playmate.  Playmates were in scarce supply in the sparsely built foothills of west Pasadena where we lived.

The particular thing I noticed about the woman, Mrs. Valli, besides her slight stature was her accented voice.  Too young to discern what kind of accent, I simply noticed that her English, while completely fluent and understandable, had a melodic quality with each word ending with special emphasis and her “th’s” sounding a bit more like “z’s” than “th’s”.

When the Vallis moved in the following month, I met Barbara for the first time as I was walking up the hill from the school bus stop.  I remember calling out to her, “Hi I’m Sherry” and hearing her reply,

“Hi, I’m Barbara.”

Barbara was slightly shorter than I.  She had dark brown hair that glinted in the sun, a few freckles scattered across her straight nose and   warm brown eyes.  Just as we started talking, an older man with kind eyes emerged from front door.  He spoke quietly to Barbara, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying because he wasn’t speaking English.

“My father says why don’t you come into our house and play?”

“Come on in,” Barbara beckoned, while her father, smiled, opening the door and motioning me inside.  I would soon learn that Natale, Barbara’s father was the parent usually at home; that he was already retired and indeed twenty years his wife’s, Carmela, senior.      Without hesitation and much curiosity., I stepped inside.

The house smelled new but not like my own house smelled when we first moved there.  As we walked into the kitchen strange things began jumping out at me.  A large gallon glass bottle partially filled with dark, purple red liquid sat prominently on the table.    Then a basket of bread rolls beside the wine jug caught my eye.  Clustered in the center were salt and pepper shakers flanking two small bulbous bottles sealed with corks.  One bottle contained red wine vinegar; the other held a shimmering green golden translucent oil, something I hadn’t seen at home.  As we walked through the kitchen there were strange aromas, I couldn’t identify.

Barbara lead me through the house to her bedroom, then asked

“You wanna play jacks? “    motioning us into the bathroom with a gold flaked linoleum floor.  The bathroom? An odd place to play jacks, I thought, but then realized that rest of the floors throughout the house were carpeted.

Our friendship began with jacks that day and developed organically over a repertoire of  shared past-times:  swimming in my pool and hers ;  hiking around the scrub covered hills where we lived,  riding bikes and hanging out watching TV in the Valli’s family room during the day time, something not permitted  at  my  house.  Quickly, I was spending more and more time at the Vallis.

Much more than unlimited TV, the Vallis introduced me to polenta, garlic as an omnipotent seasoning, daily fresh baked bread, green-gold olive oil and a constant banter in Italian.  I loved listening to the tuneful sounds rolling off their tongues, the intensity with which they spoke, their warmth and the continuous merriment.  They were loose, much looser than my WASP-ish family.  They were playful:  they drank, smoked and caroused, not excessively, but enough to create the feeling of being at an a neverending party.   I even began learning a bit of Italian as well as how to sip Chianti .   A day rarely passed that I went to play at Barbara’s where Mario Lanza sang “Volare” and Frank Sinatra crooned everything from “April in Paris” to “The Road to Mandalay”.

Occasionally, I was invited to go with Barbara and her mother to the community they’d left behind, but still frequented.   Sandwiched between Highland Park and the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, the neighborhood comprised of small, not terribly well-tended, houses, lots of people speaking Spanish-with whom Carmela could communicate because Italian melded easily with other romance languages.  Here she managed the family businesses including a liquor store, restaurant and bar.

The best part of these excursions was visiting the bar filled with old Italian men where Natale played bocce ball on the hard pack, dusty earth court in a garden shaded by large oak trees.   Little café tables were scattered around where the men sat casually drinking, smoking and conversing as the bocce games stretched across long warm Southern California afternoons.  Natale and his friends always gave Barbara and me a turn to play bocce, and I grew to like bocce better than bowling with its intolerably heavy balls.

As I grew older, my appetite for travel extended beyond, as my father called them, “trips to little Italy”.  Not only were my bedroom walls decorated with pictures of Rome and Venice, but also with travel posters of more “exotic” places such as Peru and India. At twenty, I would make my first trip “abroad” to Europe.   It was wonderful, and  the trips to little Italy were only where it all began.

“A Travel Poster” from THE ALLIGATOR’S TOOTH 

Searching for a flat in London is no fun. Especially, when you’re looking ahead at an English winter.  Most of the flats we examine are worn out bedsitters with threadbare couches, scuffed chairs and scratched tables.  Small gas heaters requiring frequent feedings of shilling coins will be the only protection against the cold.  After the summer in Spain, London seems large and lonely.  Anna Kay and several Jamaican friends have moved back to the West Indies, so we are without contemporaries in this big, often bleak city.

The search persists day after day.  The air chills, a reminder of the winter marching toward us.  This does little to lift our spirits.  I recall having just left a dingy little bedsitter with a shared loo down the hall in an outlying London neighborhood.  The sun shone weakly through the foggy October afternoon.  We decided to take the underground to downtown London to find a cheap Indian restaurant for lunch.  The spicy kick of Indian food suits Robert, while I still have not completely learned to appreciate pepper.  As we emerge from the Charring Cross Underground station to scout for a restaurant, a travel poster catches my eye.  The gentle curves of a white sand beach banded by a wide ribbon of turquoise dissolving into deep blue defy the London gray. Coconut palms with shaggy yellow-green fronds cast soft shadows on shimmering sand while two empty orange chaise lounges relax in tropical luxury.  Below the picture, in heavy bold block letters, I read the word  “JAMAICA.”

“Is that where you come from?!,” I shoot an undeniably rhetorical question Robert’s way.

“Yah, I guess so,” he replies vacantly without stopping to look at the poster.

This is the moment when Jamaica begins to take a definite shape in my mind. I begin to question him, because on the edge of winter, jobless and almost without resources, taking our chances in some tropical paradise might be a better option than London.  Robert raises his bushy Albert Einstein eyebrows with interest and looks back at the poster.  We make a perfectly synchronized about-face and enter the travel agency to make inquiries.

Robert nods towards the travel poster in the large plate glass window.  Then he  asks

the gray haired woman wearing a lavender sweater accented with black-fringed silk scarf, looking at us curiously about travel from London to Jamaica.

“When would you like to depart and return?”

We look at each other questioningly. This idea is clearly not yet a plan.  We attempt a quick conversation via face making, shoulder shrugging and mental telepathy. Robert tentatively suggests the coming week.  When the travel agent asks about the return flight, his reply is definite,

“One way,” the definitive tone of his statement surprises all three of us!

The agent begins to scrutinize the thick blue covered binder oozing with printed airline schedules for hundreds of destinations. Finally, she locates the schedules telling us that there are British Overseas Airways flights on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Tuesday flight leaves Gatwick at 11:20 in the morning and arrives in Montego Bay at 6:40 p.m.,”

Politely, Robert tells her that we need to go to Kingston.   All the while, Harry Belafonte’s honey voice floats in my ears,

Down the way where the nights are gay

And the sun shines daily on the mountain top

I took a trip on a sailing ship

And when I reached Jamaica I made a stop

The agent informs us that the Tuesday and Saturday flights continue from Montego Bay to Kingston arriving at 8:45 p.m.”

We nod with approval.   Then daringly ,  I ask ,

“How much does it cost?”

In the crispest of British accents, she  delivers the dismal news that the one-way fare is just under 200 pounds, one hundred ninety seven pounds, five to be exact.

Well, there goes that great idea, I tell myself, knowing that our net worth at that exact moment is less than one hundred ninety seven pounds, five, and we need twice that amount to buy the tickets.

Robert, however, appears to be undaunted.  He continues by asking if there is space for the coming Tuesday.

The agent calls to check on availability.  After some minutes, she relays an affirmative reply.

“Shall I book the tickets?” The tone of  her voice is underlined with a trace of skepticism.  Fortunately there aren’t any other customers waiting to make inquiries about trips to Jamaica or elsewhere, so we aren’t entirely wasting her time.  But my stomach is beginning to growl with a late lunch hunger.  I keep quiet.  Jamaica is Robert’s territory.  My knowledge, casually gleaned   from a few family stories I’ve heard and conversations with Anna Kay and her friends in London is scant.  We walk out of the travel agency into the cool London afternoon.

Robert thanks the agent for her help, indicating that we should leave for lunch and to confer.

On the street he suggests that a call to his Aunt Mignon’s brother, Manny, might make sense.

“He” ll be able to tell us more about going to Jamaica.”

Manny’s secretary reports that he is out of the office until 3 o’clock.  We find an Indian restaurant, stop there and dive into a hot plate of chicken curry.  When we arrive at Manny’s office, he has just returned from a round of golf.  The London representative of the Jamaica Industrial Development Corporation, his easy salesman pitch for Jamaica charms us within seconds.

“Yes, mon, you should go to Jamaica.  You will find a job, no problem at’tal.”

We leave his office decided.  He generously offers us the use of a flat belonging to a distant relative who isn’t in London at the moment.  We accept and stay the night to get our travel plans organized the following day.

In the morning, we go back to the BOAC office to make reservations for our air passage.  Robert figures that we can charge the cost of the one-way tickets to the Barclay cards given to us by the bank when we arrived in England a little over one year ago.

The travel agent checks with Barclays when we give her the card to make the purchase.  She instructs us to go to the bank and speak with the manager.

We walk briskly to the branch then speak with, a thin man wearing John Lennon spectacles.

“Jamaica, eh?  You are going there to work and have family there?”

“Yes,” we insist, which is, of course, the truth.

“All right then.  I’ll approve the charge if you surrender the cards.”

“That’s fine,” we agree readily.

The travel date is set for the following Tuesday, October 18.  We leave the bank in a cloud of excitement, rushing to purchase the tickets.  With tickets in hand  we return to the flat to collect our things.  That evening we call Robert’s grandparents in Kingston.  They seem as excited as we are about our arrival as we are.

“I’ll tell David to pick you up at the airport, m’love” Granny Ruby promises.