A Lifelong Friendship that Began with a Slap

“The Sweet River” by Frances de Pontes Peebles, recommended by Cristina Henríquez


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing as music, about how for me so much of the joy of reading comes from being able to hear the sound of the story in my mind — and it’s a special kind of sound because it’s not one given to you fully by the writer, only suggested by the words, their particular arrangement. So much of what I seek from a piece of writing is its musicality, the rhythms, the beat, the rise and fall, the diminuendo and crescendo, the way it rings in my ears. I’m happy to read many things, but happiest when I can hear it.

How perfect, then, that The Air You Breathe, the novel from which this week’s selection is excerpted, is not only a story about music, but is its own kind of music. “Time is short and the water is rising,” it begins, and if that doesn’t sound like a song, I don’t know what does. Near the start, the narrator, Dores, listens to old samba recordings and through them is transported into the past, down the slippery wormhole of memory.

But memory is fallible and that fallibility becomes part of the book, too. What is real? It feels like a question perfectly suited to our time. The book mutates that question into various forms: What is performance? What is a mask? What is authentic? What is true?

The chapter here where Dores and Graça, two young girls from radically different class backgrounds, meet for the first time starts to tease out the idea. They’re wonderfully insolent girls. They both refuse: to be who other people want them to be, to say what other people want them to say, to exist within the strictures imposed upon them. Which is another way of saying they’re both determined to create their own existence, write their own story. The tension between their competing ambitions is in many ways at the heart of the book. By the end of the chapter, when Dores recounts that she slapped Graça, it feels like a crescendo. But then comes the final line, which, purposefully, thuds like a note out of tune. Who slapped whom? Whose story is true? You’ll have to read the rest of this extraordinary novel to find out.

– Cristina Henríquez
Author of The Book of Unknown Americans

A Lifelong Friendship that Began with a Slap

“The Sweet River,” excerpted from The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

Time is short and the water is rising.

This is what one of Sofia Salvador’s directors—I can’t recall his name—used to shout before he’d start filming. Each time he said it, I imagined all of us in a fishbowl, our hands sliding frantically along the glass sides as water crept above our necks, our noses, our eyes.

I fall asleep listening to our old records and wake with my mouth dry, my tongue as rough as a cat’s. I pull the handle of my La‑Z‑Boy and, with a jolt, am sitting upright. A pile of photos rests in my lap.

I own the most famous photograph of Sofia Salvador—the Brazilian Bombshell, the Fruity Cutie Girl, the fast‑talking, eye‑popping nymph with her glittering costumes and pixie‑cut hair who, depending on your age and nationality, is either a joke, an icon of camp, a victim, a traitor, a great innovator, or even, as one researcher anointed her, “an object of serious study of Hollywood’s Latinas.” (Is that what they’re calling us now?) I bought the original photo and its negative at auction, paying much more than they were worth. Money isn’t an issue for me these days; I’m filthy rich and am not ashamed to say so. When I was young, musicians had to pretend that success and money didn’t matter. Ambition, in a sambista and especially in a woman, was seen as an unforgivable fault.

In the photo, taken in 1942, Sofia Salvador wears the pixie cut she made famous. Her eyes are wide. Her lips are parted. Her tongue flicks the roof of her mouth; it is unclear if she is singing or screaming. Earrings made to resemble life‑sized hummingbirds—their jeweled eyes glinting, their golden beaks sharp—dangle from her ears. She was vain about her lobes, worried they would sag under the weight of her array of earrings, each one more fantastical than the next. She was vain about everything, really; she had to be.

In the photograph she wears a gold choker, wrapped twice around her neck. Below it is strand upon strand of fake pearls, each one as large as an eyeball. Then there are the bracelets— bands of coral and gold—taking up most of her forearms. At the end of each day, when I’d take those necklaces and bracelets off her and she stopped being Sofia Salvador (for a moment, at least), Graça flapped her arms and said, “I feel so light. I could fly away!”

Graça drew Sofia’s dark eyebrows arched so high she always looked surprised. The mouth—that famous red mouth—was what took her the longest to produce. She lined beyond her lips so that, like everything else, it was an exaggeration of the real thing. Who was the real thing? By the end of her short life, even Graça had trouble answering this question.

The picture was taken for Life magazine. The photographer stood Graça against a white backdrop. “Pretend you’re singing,” he ordered. “Why pretend?” Graça replied.

“I thought that’s all you knew how to do,” the photographer shot back. He was famous and believed his fame gave him the right to be nasty.

Graça stared. She was very tired. We always were, even me, who signed Sofia Salvador’s name to hundreds of glossy photos while Graça and the Blue Moon boys endured eighteen‑hour days of filming, costume fittings, screen tests, dance rehearsals, and publicity shoots for whatever her latest movie musical was. It could have been worse; we could have been starving like in the old days. But at least in the old days we played real music, together.

“Then I will pretend to respect you,” Graça said to that fool photographer. Then she opened her mouth and sang. People remember the haircut, the enormous earrings, the sequined skirts, the accent, but they forget her voice. When she sang for that photographer, his camera nearly fell from his hands.

I listen to her records—only our early recordings, when she sang Vinicius’s and my songs—and it is as if she is still seventeen and sitting beside me. Graça, with all of her willfulness, her humor, her petty resistances, her pluck, her complete selfishness. This is how I want her, if only for the span of a three‑minute song.

When the song ends, I’m exhausted and whimpering. I imagine her here, nudging me, bringing me back to my senses.

Why the hell are you upset, Dor? Graça chides. At least you’re still around.

Her voice is so clear, I have to remind myself she isn’t real. I have known Graça longer in my imagination than in real life.

Who wants real life? Graça asks, laughing at me. (She is always laughing at someone.)

I shake my head. After all this time—ninety‑five years, to be exact— I still do not know the answer.

My current life is a dull jumble of walks along the beach chaperoned by a nurse; trips to the grocery store; afternoons in my office; evenings listening to records; tedious hours spent tolerating a steady stream of physical therapists and doctors with their proclamations and humorless devotion. I live in a vast house surrounded by paid help. Once, long ago, I wished for such ease.

Be careful what you wish forDor.

It’s too late to be careful now, amor.

Now, I wish for the early, chaotic part of my life—those first thirty or so years—to return to me, even with its cruelty, its sacrifice, its missteps, its misdeeds. My misdeeds. If I could hear my life—if I could put it on a turntable like a worn‑out LP—I’d hear samba. Not the boisterous kind they play during Carnaval. Not one of those silly marchinhas, as short‑lived and vapid as bubbles. And not the soft‑spoken, romantic sort, either. No. Mine would be the kind of samba you’d find in a roda: the kind we played in a circle after work and a few stiff drinks. It begins quite dire‑sounding, perhaps with the lonely moan of a cuíca. Then, ever so slowly, others join the roda—voices, guitars, a tamborim drum, the scratch of a reco‑reco—and the song begins to claw its way out of its lowly beginning and into something fuller, thicker, darker. It has all of the elements of a true samba (though not necessarily a great one). There is lament, humor, rebelliousness, lust, ambition, regret. And love. There is that, too. It is all improvisation, so if there are mistakes I must move past them and keep playing. Beneath it all, there is the ostinato— the main groove that never varies, never wavers. It keeps its stubborn pace; the beat that’s always there. And here I am: the only one left in the circle, conjuring voices I have not heard in decades, listening to a chorus of arguments I should never have made. I have tried not to hear this song in full. I have tried to blot it out with drink and time and indifference. But it remains in my head, and will not stop until I recall all of its words. Until I sing it out loud, from beginning to end.

The Sweet River

Share this bottle with me,
share this song.
The years have hardened my heart.
Drink will loosen my tongue.
Come, walk with me,
to the places I once loved.

Man made the fire
to burn the fields of cane.
God made music
to take away my pain.

I come from a land
where sugar is king and the river is sweet.
They say a woman drowned there,
her ghost haunts the deep.

Sit beside me now, at the riverbank
hear my voice, loud and strong.
Wade into these sweet waters with me,
let me open your heart with a song.

Now we’re both pulled under, friend,
singing the same refrain:
Dive back, again, to the place you once loved
and you’ll find it’s never the same.

Man made the fire
to burn the fields of cane.
God made music
to take away my pain.

It would be better to begin with Graça — with her arrival, with our first meeting. But life isn’t as orderly as a story or a song; it does not always begin and end at compelling points. Even before Graça’s arrival, even as a small child, I sensed that I’d been born into a role that didn’t fit my ambitions, like a stalk of sugarcane crammed into a thimble.

I survived my own birth, a true feat in 1920 if you were born to a dirt‑poor mother living on a sugar plantation. The midwife who delivered me told everyone how surprised she was that such a hearty girl could’ve come from my mother’s tired womb. I was her fifth and final child. Most women who worked on the plantation had ten or twelve or even eighteen children, so my mother’s womb was fresher and younger than most. But she was not married and never had been. All of my long‑lost brothers and myself — I was the only girl in our lot — had different fathers. This made my mother worse than a puta in many people’s minds, because at least a puta had the sense to charge for her services.

I didn’t dare ask about my mother, afraid of what I might hear and not willing to risk a beating; I was not allowed to ask any questions at all, you see. No one spoke of her, except to insult me. They said I was big‑boned, like her. They said I had a temper, like her. They said I was ugly as sin, like her, except I did not have scars covering my arms and face from the cane. She was, for a little while at least, a sugarcane cutter — one of a handful of women who could stomach the work. But the insult that came up the most was the one about her easy way with men. If I didn’t use enough salt to scrub blood from the plantation’s cutting boards, or if I stopped stirring the infernally hot jam on the stove for even a second, or if I was too slow bringing Cook Nena or her staff ingredients from the pantry or garden, I was smacked with a wooden spoon and called “puta’s girl.” So I came to know my mother through all of the things people despised about her, and about me. And I realized, though I could not articulate it clearly as a child, that people hated what they feared, and so I was proud of her.

The midwife took pity on me, being such a healthy baby, and instead of smothering me, or throwing me in the cane for the vultures pick at, or giving me to some plantation owner to raise like a pet or a slave (all common practices back then for girl children without families), she gave me to Nena, the head cook on the Riacho Doce plantation. There were hundreds of cane plantations along the coast of our state of Pernambuco, and Riacho Doce was one of the largest. In good times, when sugar prices were high, Cook Nena led a staff of ten kitchen maids and two houseboys. Nena was as full‑breasted as a prize rooster and had hands as large and as lethal as her cast‑iron frying pans. The Pimentel family owned Riacho Doce and were the masters of its Great House, but Nena ruled in the kitchen. This is why no one objected when, after the midwife brought me, naked and wailing, to Nena, the cook decided to raise me as her kitchen girl.

Everyone in the Great House — maids, laundresses, stable boys, houseboys — went to Nena’s kitchen to get a look at me. They freely remarked on my rosy skin, my long legs, my perfect feet. A day later, I stopped drinking the goat’s milk Nena gave me in a bottle. Nena visited a local wet nurse and I spat the woman’s teats from my mouth. I was too young to eat manioc porridge but Nena tried to feed it to me anyway. I spat that out, too, and soon turned shriveled and yellow‑skinned like an old crone. People said I’d been cursed by the evil eye. Olho mau, they called it, olho gordo. Both are different names for the same bad luck.

Nena went to Old Euclides for help. Euclides was wrinkled, gossipy, and the color of blackstrap scraped from the sugar mill’s vats. He’d worked at R iacho Doce longer than Nena had, first as a stable boy and then as its groundskeeper. He had a donkey who’d given birth and lost her foal but not her milk. Nena took me to the stables and held me straight to that jega’s teat, and I drank. I drank that jega’s milk until I was fat and strong again. My color changed; I was less like a rose and more like that donkey’s tan coat. My hair grew in thick. After that, I was called Jega.

In people’s superstitious and backward minds, the girl I became was inextricably linked to the mother’s milk I’d drunk.

“Jega’s as dumb as an ass,” the houseboys teased.

“Jega’s as stubborn as an ass,” the kitchen maids complained.

“Jega’s as ugly as an ass,” the stable boys said when they felt spiteful.

They all wanted me to believe it. They wanted me to become that Jega. I would never give them that satisfaction.

The Great House sat on a hill. You could stand on its pillared front porch and see nearly all of Riacho Doce’s workings: the main gate, the mill with its blackened smokestack, the horse and donkey stables, the administrator’s house, the carpenter’s shed, the old manioc mill, a small square of pasture and corn, the distillery and warehouses with their thick iron doors. And you could see the brown line of water that gave Riacho Doce its name, although it was much wider than a creek and its waters were not sweet.

Every plantation had a ghost story and ours was no different: a woman had drowned in the creek and lived there still. Some said she was killed by a lover, others said a master, others said she killed herself. They said you could hear her at night, under the waters, singing for her lost love or trying to lure people into the waters and drown them to keep her company; the story depended on whether you believed in the kind ghost or the vengeful one. Riacho Doce’s mothers told their children this before bed, and it kept them away from the river. I heard the ghost’s story from Nena.

Behind the Great House was an orchard, and behind that the low‑ roofed slaves’ senzalas that had been converted into servants’ quarters. Nena and I were the only staff allowed to sleep in the Great House itself, which set us apart from the rest of the servants. This special status didn’t affect Nena as much as it did me. I was Jega — the lowest soul in the strict hierarchy of the Great House — and the maids and houseboys were determined to remind me of this fact. They slapped me, pinched my neck, cursed and spat at me. They thwacked me with wooden spoons and greased the staff doorway with lard to make me slip and fall. They locked me in the foul‑smelling outhouse until I kicked my way out. Nena knew about these pranks but didn’t stop them.

“That’s the way a kitchen is,” Nena said. “You’re lucky the boys aren’t trying to get under your skirts. They will soon enough. Better learn to fight them now.”

Nena always issued such warnings to me:

Better keep your head down.

Better stay out of sight.

Better make yourself useful.

If I failed to heed her warnings she beat me with a wooden spoon, or an old bullwhip, or with her bare hands. And while I feared these beatings I didn’t think them odd or bad; I knew no other kind of affection, and neither did Nena. She used her fists to teach me things she couldn’t articulate, lessons that would keep me alive. Nena could keep me safe in her kitchen but nowhere else. I was a creature without family or money. I was another mouth to feed. And, even worse, I was a girl. At the owners’ whim, I could be thrown out of the Great House and left to fend for myself in that sea of sugarcane. And what did an ugly little girl have to offer the world but her body? So I had to learn to defend that body ruthlessly against any stable boys or millworkers or others who might try to use it roughly. And, at the same time, I had to learn how to make myself useful within the house, to obey my patrons at all costs or, better yet, stay out of their sights completely. As long as I was invisible, I was safe.

So while little girls like Graça were playing with dolls and dresses, I learned to play other kinds of games. Games where force was power, and where cleverness meant survival.

When I was nine years old, the world’s great financial crash hit Brazil and sugar became as valuable as dirt. Smaller plantations near R iacho Doce boarded up their Great Houses and put workers out of their gates. Riacho Doce’s mill closed. After getting into crippling debt, the Pimentel family moved away. There were rumors of a sale. Soon afterward, the cane cutters left to work on other plantations that had weathered the crisis. The fields were abandoned. The distillery was locked. One by one, the housemaids and kitchen girls and stable boys left. Soon, only Nena, Old Euclides, and I were left.

“They’ll be back,” Nena said of the Pimentels. “No one leaves their land. And when they do come back, they’ll remember who was loyal and who wasn’t.”

Nena was driven by loyalty and fear. She and Old Euclides were born on Riacho Doce before slavery had been banned in Brazil in 1888, and had stayed on even after they were freed. During the abandonment, Old Euclides took care of the grounds, making sure no one took animals from the stables or stole fruit from the orchard. Nena wouldn’t let her copper pots and iron pans fall into the hands of looters or bill collectors so she hid anything of value. Porcelain dining sets, silver platters and tureens, pure gold cutlery, a bowl made of mother‑of‑pearl were stashed under the Great House’s floorboards. We ate whatever food was left in the pantry and then, because none of us had been paid since the Pimentels left, began to trade at the local market. Eggs for flour, star fruit from the orchard for a bit of salted meat, bottles of molasses for beans. These were lean times but not unhappy ones. Not for me.

For many months the Great House was empty and I spent my days inside it. I skipped across its stone floors. I slipped my hands under dust covers and felt cool marble, the slopes and curves of table legs, the gilded bevels of mirrors. I pulled books from shelves and opened them wide to hear their bindings snap. I walked proudly up and down the wide wooden staircase, like I imagined the lady of the house would. For the first time in my nine years of life, I had the luxury of time and freedom — to explore, to pretend, to play without fear of being hit or scolded, to live without the constant worry that I would be cast out of Riacho Doce for some small infraction. I was allowed to be a child, and began to believe that I would always have such freedom. I should have known better.

One day, as I sat in the library and tried to decode the mysterious symbols inside the Pimentels’ books, I heard a terrible growling outside. It sounded as if there was a giant dog snarling at the Great House gate. I ran to Nena, who opened the front door.

A motorcar rumbled outside the front gate. Old Euclides scrambled, suddenly as spry as a puppy, down the drive and pushed open the gate. The car stopped and a man emerged from the driver’s side. He wore a hat and a long canvas coat to protect his suit. He opened the passenger and back doors. Two women emerged: a pale one also wearing a driving coat, and another in a maid’s striped uniform and lace cap. The maid attempted to tug something from the backseat. There was a hiss and a screech. For a moment, I believed there was an animal in the car — a cat or some kind of possum — until I saw the maid’s hands wrapped around two tiny feet in patent leather boots. The boots kicked free of the maid’s grip. The woman wedged herself deeper into the car’s doorway. Then there were screams, grunts, a swirl of white petticoats and, finally, a cry. The maid jumped from the automobile’s backseat, her eyes watering, her hand pressed to a fresh scratch on her face.

“Leave her inside!” the man snapped. “She’s old enough to climb out herself.”

The maid nodded, her hand still clamped to her face. The other woman sighed and unbuttoned her canvas driving coat, revealing a silk dress and a tangle of pearls at her neck.

A halo of red curls surrounded her face. Her skin was what we called “mill white” because that was the prized color of sugar. The sugar we used in the Great House kitchen was the mill’s seconds — raw and muddy‑colored, not white but not quite brown, just like me.

“It’s better she doesn’t come outside,” the man said, staring at the dirt road. “She’ll get herself filthy.” He had darker coloring, a square jaw, and a Roman nose that sloped like an arrow pointing at his full mouth.

“We’ll all have to get used to a little dirt from now on,” the mill white woman replied, and her lips pursed as if she was holding back laughter, as if she’d told herself a naughty joke.

At the mention of dirt, a girl my own age wiggled from the backseat. She wore a dress the color of butter, and white gloves. A bow sat crookedly atop her head; the girl snatched it from her hair and flung it to the ground. She kicked at the dirt, scuffing her boots, and then glared at the adults around her, daring them to tell her to stop. Then she saw me, and stood still. To her, I was not invisible.

Her eyes were the color of cork. Her mouth looked as if it had been painted onto her face, like a doll’s. I don’t know how long we stared at each other; I only remember not wanting to break first, determined not to let her win.

Still staring at me, the girl pressed her gloved hand to the car’s body and dragged it across the entire side. Then she raised her hand. The glove’s palm was as red as the earth under my bare feet. The girl smirked, as if sharing a joke, but I knew she didn’t intend to amuse me. Gloves were for the rich. They were expensive and delicate. Some poor laundress would have the unenviable task of trying to clean that soiled glove, so small it would bunch in her hands and make her knuckles scrape against the washboard until they bled. But the girl didn’t care about the glove, or the laundress, or anything. She would ruin something perfectly good, for no reason at all. I felt both respect and revulsion.

“Graça!” the man shouted.

The man and woman bickered. Nena, Old Euclides, and I kept very still, waiting for them to acknowledge our presence. Only when they needed help did we become flesh‑and‑blood to them — the man ordered Euclides to get the bags from the car’s trunk; the pale woman dropped her driving coat into Nena’s arms. This is when I knew that those people were not visitors but owners, come to claim Riacho Doce and the Great House for themselves.

They were also Pimentels — cousins of the previous owners. As we walked through the Great House together, Senhora Pimentel moved languidly alongside her husband, looking tired as she pointed out leaks and cracks, peeling paint and rotted wood. Her husband, Senhor Pimentel, yanked dust covers from the furniture, like a magician revealing his trick.

“I remember my grandfather using this desk!” he cried. And, later, “I was the one who spilled ink on this chair!”

The giddy freedom I’d felt over several months leaked away in the single hour after those new Pimentels arrived. All of the books I’d slipped from the shelves, all of the ivory and glass knickknacks I’d polished and stroked, all of the tables I’d hidden under, pretending I was in a tent in some exotic land, all of the mirrors in which I’d studied myself, would never again be mine to play with. I would once again have to be useful and invisible, to obey or be cast away. When her parents weren’t looking, the cork‑eyed girl stuck out her tongue at me. It was as pink and slick as a jambo fruit. I had the urge to bite off its tip.

Finally, the new Pimentels pulled the covers from two armchairs and sat, exhausted, in the formal sitting room. They ordered Nena to make coffee. We raced to the kitchen, where Nena grabbed my arm and told me to get the last, precious beans she’d hidden under her cot. Back upstairs, I peeked through the slatted door of the sitting room as Nena served coffee to the new Pimentels. They waited to drink until she’d left the room; I did not follow her to the kitchen.

Senhor Pimentel took a sip from his cup and made a face. “Did she use an old sock to strain this?” he asked.

Senhora Pimentel shook her head. “We’ll have to train a new staff. How exhausting.”

“Nena’s a good cook — you’ll see. She’s been here since I was a kid,” Senhor Pimentel replied.

“You think she and the old man had that child together? Poor little ugly thing.”

Senhor Pimentel laughed. “Nena’s as old as the hills. And the girl’s too light‑skinned to be theirs. I bet she’s not so ugly under all that dirt; she just needs a good scrubbing.”

“She’ll stay in the kitchen,” Senhora Pimentel snapped. “If she grows up to be decent‑looking she can serve the table.”

Senhor Pimentel took his wife’s hand. She fixed him with the same weary expression she’d had when she’d inspected the Great House. They discussed their plans for the house. Furniture that was upstairs would go downstairs. Rugs would be thrown out. Curtains replaced. Water pipes and a flush toilet installed, which meant hacking into the house’s thick white walls.

There were footsteps behind me. Before I could hide, I felt a terrible stinging on the back of my arm. The cork‑eyed Pimentel girl pinched the skin above my elbow. I glared and shook her loose.

“Marta always cried when I pinched her,” the girl said.

“Who’s Marta?”

“The kitchen girl at my other house, in Recife. It’s a mansion. Better than this pigsty.”

“This is the best house of any plantation,” I said.

The girl shrugged. “You must die of boredom out here.”

“Do I look dead?”

“It’s a way of talking. Are you dumb?”

“Not half as dumb as you look.”

The girl’s eyes widened. “You can’t talk to me like that.”

She was right — I was risking my place in that Great House. I blame those many months of freedom for my boldness, and for what happened next.

“This is my house now,” the girl said.

My hand made a crisp, exhilarating slap against her cheek. The girl gasped. I ran.

The kitchen pantry was an empty, cool space. I sat inside, waiting. My fingers throbbed from the slap I’d dealt. I had sickening thoughts of Nena finding me and giving me the worst thrashing of my life. Or, worse, Senhor Pimentel stalking into the kitchen and casting me out of the only home I’d ever known. After what felt like an eternity, there were footsteps and chatter, then the automobile growled again and the new Pimentels left with a promise to return and begin renovations.

I was impressed that the Pimentel girl hadn’t snitched; it made her tolerable to me, but also dangerous. What would she want in return for her silence? What would I owe her? These were the questions I asked myself in the weeks before the new Pimentels returned, while carpenters and stonemasons and plumbers sawed and pounded and pressed copper pipes into the Great House’s walls.

Years later, I asked Graça about the day we met and she laughed. I remembered it all wrong, she said. She’d slapped me.

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