On my last night in Lisbon, I accomplished a lifelong dream of falling in love with a Spanish guitarist. He asked me my name before the last song in his set, The Girl From Ipanema strummed over a mesmerizing loop. Everyone in the courtyard restaurant lingered over wine, under striped umbrellas and the spell of this Brazilian wizard with Da Vinci hair and a focused, furrowed brow.
He played in one of Alfama's palm-shaded plazas, where coral linens fluttered above, vigorously collecting the smell of sea salt and citrus. I stayed with a French jazz-club-owning family in this ancient neighborhood shaped by the Moors who named it Al-Hamma, where women sell fish from their doorways.
My eyes feasted all day on the colors of Alfama's steep slopes. I got lost countless times in the twisting cobblestone labyrinth, only to discover new patterns of those iconic tiles, technicolor flags strung from window to window, and crowded outdoor tables convivial with wine bottles and fresh bread and the zh-sh-ch sounds of gregarious Portuguese.
That evening, I was on my way to Lisbon's party neighborhood, the nightlife-fueled Bairro Alto, where I had shared the company of Germans and Cape Verdeans a few midnights before at a cavelike club filled with pink smoke and the aggressive beats of a Danish DJ. I thought it would be appropriate to end the week there, on the night that I had finally smoothed out my jet lag and remembered how to order a beer in Portuguese.
But, I've never been able to resist the Spanish guitar (which has led to plenty of romantic disasters in the past). The guitarist was playing a familiar samba song as I passed through an Alfama backstreet toward Bairro Alto, and I stopped for a minute to listen.
A minute rolled into two hours of soft cheese, lemon-soaked squid, flaky cod stirred with garbanzo beans, and the crepuscular transition from white to red wine. I wrote in my journal and chatted with the Belgian photographers at the table next to mine, but the whole time I was transfixed by the guitarist, whose passion punctuated every note. I realized I wouldn't be making it to Bairro Alto that night.
I saw stars in the eyes of college girls, waitresses, and middle-aged tourists, and I turned cranberry red when the guitarist focused on my eyes and asked across tables if I would like to go out with him after his set. Everyone turned around and looked at me. I said, "Yes, I'd love that."
Did Woody Allen write the screenplay for your vacation? a friend asked me when I recounted this extraordinary life moment.
We walked up one of Alfama's secret alleys to meet his fellow Brazilians for back-of-the-bar jam session. More Nirvana, less João Gilberto. They traded off playing drums, guitar, and the triangle. Bohemian ex-pats from Japan and England joined. We spoke a stew of French, Spanish, and self-conscious English.
They laughed at me when I tried to play the drums along to Smells Like Teen Spirit, and I supplied vocals for our cover of Karma Police.
For a minute there, I lost myself. I lost myself.
In the past two months before leaving for Lisbon, I've self-isolated. I cry on the way to work and the way home from work; the rest of the time I put on a pretty good show of keeping it together, which mostly meant staying in my apartment. Strangers on the sidewalk see me gasp for air between sobs, but I prefer to keep my unraveling out of sight from people I know and love.
This facade leads to false accusations from friends such as "You're so strong," "You're handling this really well," "You're tough"--compliments which sound as inaccurate as "You have nice curly black hair." I silently question Don't you see me?
"You and your dad weren't that close, right?" I'm often asked. "Not really," I say, to let the other person off the hook.
In reality, it's irrelevant; the loss of a parent is profound. I think about him every minute, the Spirit of My Silence.
On Easter Sunday, I stepped into a lavish gold, marble, and tiled cathedral long enough to hear the bespectacled old priest exclaim Bom Pascoa! then headed out to the lively Principe Real neighborhood, known for its gay community and taffy-colored houses. To my surprise, shops and restaurants were open. I happened upon a sparse but exquisite boutique where I tried on fourteen dresses before landing on a Portuguese-designed black embroidered overlay, which the shop owner told me was "very special."
I found a mansion-lined park near the boutique and stopped for a while to watch a dog go out of his mind playing fetch, and children play in this musical foreign language. I claimed a bench where I listened to birds chat with each other, and read a reflection written by a mourning mother. She reminded readers that Jesus proved his identity on Easter morning by showing his wounds. My wounds mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.
After our jam session, the Spanish guitarist and his crew of united nations were heading for another cafe to have 2am beet soup and hot chocolate. "I leave early in the morning, so I can't stay out much later." I'd later laugh at this statement as I fumbled with the skeleton key of my apartment door a couple hours later, wisps of newborn sunlight just beginning to warm the blue and white porcelain tiles of my building.
I wondered many times over the week how a place could stand to be so beautiful. It nourished so much life, from peacock flocks to webs of hibiscus, messes of gardenia and legendary swallows.
Does anything bad ever happen here? I questioned earnestly, not out of resentment but awe.
To me, it seemed like Lisbon was a grown-up Disneyland, where magic infused the sea-washed air. My biggest dilemmas of the week was whether to buy the electric blue or the hot pink high heels, whether to start with a Negroni or glass of port, whether to take a bee-yellow tram or walk down the hill to the water.
Of course, of course bad things happen here, I concluded after visiting the battered ruins of Moorish castles, lonely hilltop palaces, and an awkward monument celebrating "The Discoveries."
This fierce land is haunted with a deeply sorrowful, often ugly history marked through time by The Crusades, colonialism, a dictatorship, and sudden poverty. As you happily lap up pistachio gelato in Alfama's backstreets, you can hear the gloomy melodies of fado, an entire musical genre devoted to the Portuguese-brand heartbreak and homesickness. Orange trees grow right next to ancient prisons. Beauty tangles with grief.
As I said goodbye to my new friends on my last night, my heart was full and breaking at the same time. The guitarist named this feeling: saudade.
They say saudade is unique to Portuguese, impossible to define in English. Nostalgia gets pretty close, but somehow saudade is heavier and more complicated. It's the remnant of gratitude and bliss that something happened, but the simultaneous devastation that it has gone and will never happen again. It marries the feelings of happy wistfulness and poignant melancholy, anticipation and hopelessness.
Ah yes, the national word of Portugal. The mournful theme of Brazilian slaves, homesick sailors, and Moorish poets.
It's universally understood by a cross-ocean culture with a constant feeling of absence, a yearning for the return of something now gone.
One sunset a day in Lisbon, I would ache over a romance I deeply missed. I kept company with an abstract, incomplete version of him: his smile, his laugh, one voicemail remaining on my phone. His gentle apparition kept me company over the carafes of wine, the white fish slathered in olive oil, the shots of strong cherry liquor in candlelit brick-vaulted bars, the panorama of burnt tile rooftops cooling as the sun sank into the ocean.
Then the neroli-scented breeze would pass through the leaves of an orange tree and his apparition would go along with it, leaving me a two-person table with an empty seat.
I recognized how infinitely happier I am to be single, with every freedom belonging only to me. I thought about how well this freedom suits both my spontaneous whims and long-term desires, and I questioned, as I've been questioning for a decade, if I'm cut out for a relationship. I love to be alone, I love to travel by myself, I love the possibility of romantically connecting with a new beautiful soul at any given moment. How disappointed I would be to have to turn down, say, a Spanish guitarist.
But that consolation was on the opposite side of the ocean from my lost love's intrusive absence. It's nice to think that a loss can lead to something better in its place, but, during sunset, a loss is just a loss.
After we finished our hot chocolate, the guitarist and I stepped out into the silent alley for fresh air, our footsteps amplified by centuries-old stone. By the glow of streetlamps, we found a place to whisper--under the archway of a 13th century whitewashed chapel.He asked me if I played guitar. I laughed, "No, my dad's a guitarist, but I didn't get any talent for it." I almost caught my use of the present tense, but let it go. My father's death was the last place I wanted to mentally visit, so I used magical thinking and my flawed Spanish--our common language--to pretend it hadn't happened.
Holding hands as we walked, we dug deeper into the topic, and he came bouncing back into the bar, excitedly telling everyone in slurred Portuguese that my dad played guitar with Janis Joplin. "Reeeeally?," they cooed in English, eyes wide. Some recognized his name.
I told him he had become an artist, a linguist, a lifelong musician, that he had taught me about Portugal when I was little.
I used to play a game with my dad where I would ask him any question--What do people eat for breakfast in Guam? How do you say 'My cat likes to claw furniture' in Latin? Who invented sushi? and he would know the answer, plus some bonus facts. I recently learned that many of his friends and other family members enjoyed this game too. It helped that he had been to almost every country you can name, that he spoke a double-digit number of languages fluently and expressively, that he would check out the maximum number of library books at a time and devour them in a weekend.
He was also a naturally charismatic, handsome, and funny person who could effortlessly strike up a conversation with cab drivers and celebrities alike. Much of his knowledge came from his treasured hobby of talking to people.
I thought of him one dusk when I sat on the mosaic bench of a hilltop park, watching young people play music and skateboard and drink cheap beer, the empty bottles filling woven bags. My dad loved to join in with people having fun, disregarding age and profession and other details that have absolutely nothing to do with music and laughter. Traveling was his favorite medium through which to attack life, and I grew up learning there was no experience more valuable. One of my proudest moments was announcing my first solo international trip at 16 to him.
The guitarist ordered me a final glass of port. I finished my story about getting lost in Berlin and finding the best shawarma of my life from the two sweetest cooks, who invited me to stay at their house in Morocco some day.
"You've had such a big life for such a young person," the guitarist said. "Your parents must be really cool."
"Yeah," I replied, "They are really cool."