Not long ago, the following sentence was entered into the personal literary canon of my household:

“She is m’ennerve because she is toujours trying to cache my doudou.”

It’s an even larger mess and a more resplendent marvel when you hear it.

The line was uttered by my four-year old who wanted to say that her sister is “getting on her nerves because she is still trying to hide her favorite plush toy.” But instead she spoke this one sentence from the two languages she has yet to fully unbraid. I stood over her at the time, ready to respond “Quoi?” before reminding myself to stick with English and leave her mother to the concerns of the tongue with all the accents.

I have a lot of trouble sleeping. I have just about every sleep disorder a person can have, things you’ve never heard of, esoteric sleeping disorders.  When I can’t sleep or I wake up and can’t go back to sleep, Victor wins. I’m too tired to write or to paint, so I give him massages. He can get a massage when he’s fast asleep, wake up enough to enjoy it and then go right back to sleep. He’s an unusually gifted sleeper.

Recently we were in a hotel in Sweden where there was this sign in the bathroom:

 

 

My daughters both love “products.”  I got my love of “products” from them.  I wanted to try all of them. The “Schampo” and the “Balsam” were both in the shower. I didn’t know if the “Balsam” were a conditioner or a body wash, so I regretfully didn’t use that one when I took my shower.  I didn’t want to body wash my hair after “schampoing” it, in case it wasn’t a conditioner.  The only balsam I know about is that really unusual wood that is so soft you can carve it with your fingernail.  I couldn’t figure out if that would be good for conditioning my hair or washing my body, so I used a bar of soap I saved in the plastic hair cover from the last hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

Also on the counter were these two lotions:

 

 

 

 

Naturally, I couldn’t sleep and Victor was snoring away, so I grabbed one of the lotions and tore off his blanket and gave him an exceptional massage.  Victor does love a massage, regardless of whether he is asleep or awake.  I gave him a good, hard working over.

But I was still awake.

So I snatched the other lotion and gave him a second massage with that lotion. I thought it would be interesting to compare them.  It’s not like I had something else to do in the middle of the night.  My eyes wander out towards my ears when I’m tired, so I can’t even focus to read. The massage started out perfectly, but after a while the lotion dried out, which was weird. I had never had this happen before.  His skin felt like paper. Victor mumbled that he thought perhaps the aloe vera was not a lotion but was instead a liquid soap. I went into the bathroom and ran water over my hands and, by golly, it sure got sudsy.

So I returned to Victor and I told him he had to get up and take a shower, because he couldn’t leave the liquid soap rubbed into his skin all night. Surely he would get a rash or at the very least it would dry out his skin and make him super itchy. He was snoring again.  I shook him awake and repeated myself. He declined. He had no intention of jumping in the shower in the middle of the night.  He wanted to sleep. He didn’t care one whit about the state of his skin in the morning, or ever, if truth be told.

But I felt bad about using soap on him for his second massage of the night, and I still wasn’t tired, so I gave him a third massage with the original lotion. I gave him a super-long, super-greasy massage to try to counteract the crusty film of dry soap. By this time, I had tired myself out enough to go to sleep myself, which sometimes happens.

In the shower the following morning, Victor was completely obscured in suds, without having to use any product whatsoever. It was as though I were watching a body wash commercial where they used lots of computer animation. And in the end, his skin was soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom.

In our four decades together, we have been continually calculating and honing all sorts of strategies which make our living together function as best it can. When we first retired, we were together all the time. That might sound like fun, but it did not turn out to be.  After we came to our senses, we decided to do our volunteering in different places and on different days, so that we have some time apart. This keeps us from being together 24/7, which we quickly discovered was a recipe for getting on each other’s nerves. We’re in our sixties now, and we simply don’t know how much longer we will have together. We want to make the time we have good time.

Don’t get me wrong, we still get into arguments; we’re far from perfect, but you learn certain tricks over the years. I can’t say I know what tricks Victor uses to keep me from making him crazy. I’m sure that he must have tons of them, though. I know I can’t be easy to be around all the time. My kids have told me that enough times. These maneuvers must be covert or they simply wouldn’t work. I’m quite sure he has no idea how often I have to count to ten and to ten again until I can answer a question that might well have resulted in a snide answer, without the requisite pause to get knee-jerk anger out of the equation; or how often I keep my eyes closed tightly when he is driving, so I don’t make that squealy noise that escapes when I think we’re about to be smashed in a massive car accident. That squealy noise really ticks him off. You know, that is the sort of thing is that I mean here. We had to learn the art of making concessions to each other. The art of compromise, done clandestinely, so as not to call attention to itself, done smoothly, no keeping score. (That part’s important.)

There was a time when my sleeping difficulties used to cause friction between us. He used to wake up if I left the bed and then he’d be grumpy all day from lack of sleep. When I figured out that he didn’t care if I woke him for a massage, it totally fixed that problem. It gives me something to do when I’m bleary and tired and it makes him happy. I really feel a sense of accomplishment when I can make Victor happy, since Victor is calibrated a bit off to the cranky side, truth be told.  Frequently it leads to a nice bit of hanky-panky which is always rewarding.  He goes right back to sleep, and there is the added bonus that sometimes it wears me out enough to go to sleep myself.

When we got married, we honestly didn’t understand what being together entailed. We each came with pre-conceived notions that turned out to be hopelessly fanciful. It took us a good long time to learn that for our marriage to survive and to thrive, we had to work at it. We had to figure things out. Sometimes it was hard, but we fell in love for a reason and over time, consciously working at it, we grew together and fell in love over and over again for a million other reasons. For Victor and me, the world is our oyster now, for as long as we have together.

(Excuse me a minute, Victor is hollering at me from across the house, so I need to count to ten a few times before I go to see what he wants this time….)

December 11, 2009 – L.A.X.

In general, I feel good about this. Three months isn’t such a long time, and I certainly wasn’t accomplishing anything in L.A. So what if all anyone has told us about Brazil is that it’s dangerous, and we’ll be beaten and robbed within seconds of landing in Sao Paulo. Just because everyone has a third- or fourth-hand account of a girl who was slashed or a guy who was shot doesn’t mean we’ll be slashed and shot. Never mind that story in the Times about how Brazilian police kill hundreds of innocent people a year. Just don’t ask the police for help. And just don’t think about that other story in the Times that said gangmembers in one of Rio’s favelas just shot down a police helicopter. That was Rio.

Everything’s going to be fine.

 

December 15 – Sao Paulo

On Sunday, Day One, it was raining, so after breakfast we went to a nearby mall. I don’t see how Sao Paulo can be dangerous. At the entrance a man stands with a machine gun strapped to his bulletproof vest, the cuffs of his black cargo pants tucked into his army boots. That seems to be the hip look for scary paramilitary types. When a man tucks his pants into his boots, you can just assume he has no problem with cold-blooded murder. Think about it: those Blackwater Nazis? Tuckers, to a man.

Inside, there are five security guards for every civilian. Men in dark jackets stand about thirty feet apart, watching every move we make.  When I take my wallet out of my pocket to pay for some cheesebread, I do it very slowly.

Yes! We successfully ordered cheesebread! We communicate with the natives via pointing at what we want. As a result, we tend not to get exactly what we want, but we are adaptable and our stomachs are strong.

 

December 16

Stomach pain!

Shouldn’t have gone from being vegetarian straight to eating chicken wrapped in bacon.

Also, Portuguese is hard. It shares words with Spanish, but Brazilians pronounce the Rs like Hs at the beginning of words but like Ds in the middle of words. They pronounce Ds like Js, and Ts like CHs (as in “Chanukah”), except when they don’t, and I have no idea when that is. Basically I have to rely on context to make a guess about what people are saying to me.

Have discovered local Starbucks. Emotions: conflicted.

 

December 17

Karen is jealous that I get to hang out all day while she has to work. I sympathize, but hey, I’m working. These crossword puzzles aren’t going to do themselves! I mean, I’m trying to plot my novel, but well, it sucks. And right now, someone is using a circular saw right on the other side of this wall, and the sound is like a demon screeching inside my head. I would leave this place, but I’m waiting for coffee. Still learning the local customs. I’m relying wholly on tone and context here, but I think the barista just said to me, “Sit down, bitch! I’ll bring you your goddamn coffee when it’s ready!”

I miss my dog.

 

December 18

Brazilian greetings are complicated. Before noon, it’s “Bom dia!” (but you say, “Bong gee-a”). Then, “Boa Tarde!” (“Ta-ch-jee!”) and then at night, “Boa Noite” (“Noichee or Noich.”) But you also might get, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” which are apparently interchangeable. If someone says “Tudo bem?” your response is supposed to be “Tudo bom!” and vice versa, but so far all Karen and I have been able to do is smile and repeat whatever they’ve said to us, or lapse into a lame “Hi.”

I’m at a mall. I flew six thousand miles to sit in a mall. Next to Starbucks. But in my defense, it’s an outdoor mall, and it’s the only place in like a three-mile radius where you can be outside without suffering the noise and air pollution from the cars that clog every street.  And I’m not at Starbucks. Just next to it. At Fran’s Café, which, I’ve been told, is the Brazilian Starbucks.

There are security guards everywhere. The patrons of this mall are professionals and the super-rich. I’m the sketchiest-looking person here.

 

December 19

I did our laundry for the first time yesterday. It’s a complicated business, that begins with my calling housekeeping and saying, “Posso reservar a lavanderia?” and the housekeeper’s saying, “Que?” and my trying again and her saying something unintelligible that goes on way too long but ends abruptly so that the silence extends into awkward territory until I say, “Um…” and she says, “Agora! Agora!” and I say, “Oh, now? OK!”

I took the elevator down to the stiflingly hot basement where the laundry room is and where the housekeepers all marvel at the gringo man doing laundry. I don’t know much about Brazil yet, but I’m guessing they don’t have house-husbands here. I think of saying in Portuguese, “A woman’s work is never done!” but my courage fails me.

The machines are slow and stubborn, and the dryers don’t actually dry. I used up my entire allotted three-hour window, and still had to hang clothes from every possible place in the apartment to dry them. I managed to hang all of Karen’s undies on hangers, five each, which I then hung from our dining table chandelier. If all else fails, I will become a panty-mobile maker and sell my crafts by the roadside.

 

January 4, 2010

New year, old shit. Trouble sleeping. How can I detach the critical part of my brain?

I’m in the penthouse common room of the hotel. The view is 360 degrees of high-rise buildings, beautiful in a sort of tragic, pre-apocalyptic way. Every now and then a helicopter flies by and keeps going or lands on one of the office buildings in the neighborhood. Those guys — the ones who take helicopters around the city — just have to be all-star douchebags. There’s just no way around it.

There are security cameras in here. They’re also in the hallway outside our room, and in the elevators. Do they make me want to adjust my scrotum and pick my nose more than usual, or am I just more aware of these urges?

 

January 7

The housekeeper is messing with me. I leave the room at the same time every day to allow her to clean, but today I leave for two hours and come back, and she still hasn’t been here. What do I do? I am a home-person. I’m the roommate about whom other roommates moan to their friends, “He’s always home!”

I can only sit in so many cafés, and the hotel roof gets too hot in the afternoons. Where can I go?  Who will care for me? Is this how my ancestors felt? Would building a golden calf make me feel any better?

 

January 8

No.

 

January 9? 10?

I’ve lost track. Feeling a bit… low. I’m working at the juice place I’ve been going to so the servers at the cafés don’t think I’m stalking them. It’s pouring rain. It’s rained every day that we’ve been here, which is fine with me. I could go back to the room, switch the green Favor Arrumar o Quarto card on the door handle back over to the red Favor Não Incomodar, but then the room won’t be cleaned! What if we should want to shower again today?! The towels will be — gasp! — damp!

Karen says she doesn’t think the room needs to be cleaned every day — we certainly don’t have a housekeeper in real life — but I’m afraid of setting a precedent. Skip a day and the housekeeper may never come back. Or skip a day, and then I’ll skip two, and then three. Before we know it, we’ll be living like animals.

Also, I just left the hotel, and I can’t run that gauntlet again. On my way out I had to walk past the front desk, where no fewer than four blue-blazered hotel staffers milled around, all smiling fakely and saying, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” or “Bom Dia!” Then there was the stoic security guard at the door, his deep “Bom Dia,” and then the three valet parking attendants. I just nodded and kept walking, like someone who is busy, very busy. No time for chit-chat, I have places to be, people to order coffee from!

No. Can’t go back to the hotel.

 

January 11?

Why can’t I get my shit together and get some work done? What’s my problem? Why won’t the housekeeper be consistent? Why doesn’t this hotel have a back door?

It’s too hot to think in this climate.

Stomach pain is back. Yesterday we accidentally ordered a stew that had at least four different animals in it.

When we get back to the States, I’m going vegan.