One August morning, I sat down with Angela Lopes’ Bridge Retakes. The neighbourhood was pulsating with summer noise.
A house was being constructed six doors down, prettifying work was underway two doors down, a landscaper’s leaf-blower was out of sight but roaring, and a neighbour’s grandson was cranky about being alive.
Telling myself it was likely less noisy than São Paola, Brazil – where the novel opens, in 2015 – wasn’t working.
A search for sertanejo songs to draw focus to the scene on the page: that wasn’t working either.
The neighbour called out to say she wanted to bring the boy over to say hello in a few minutes; I began to wonder if anything could work.
Stabbing at a Spotify playlist and lunging for my headphones: Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” swept me into the story of Phila and Zé .
There they were: Phila and Zé riding in the car Tracy Chapman is singing about. Arms wrapped around shoulders, that feeling of belonging, against the lights of the city.
In fact, Zé does have a car. It’s one of the criteria for a Canadian tourist Visa that he does have. In addition to a family he can return to in Brazil.
But he does not have a house or the desired bank balance. Economic stability isn’t part of his everyday. Nor is he actually planning to visit Canada, even after meeting Phila.
Phila has three jobs and shares her time between Winnipeg and Brazil, visiting family and, then, Zé. Her budget, her travels: kaleidoscopic.
The dollars and reals matter in this story. They are like a single acoustic line behind a series of love scenes. Phila is warned that Zé could be using her to marry into Canada. Zé is warned that Phila must have another man in Canada, with whom she shares a comfortable materialistic life, her reason for returning rather than staying with Zé.
Their first kiss lasts ten minutes. They refuse the extra slices of pizza being packaged for takeaway. They stay in a motel that is unepxectedy lush and neither reacts to the room as the other expects. Zé works in a photo lab and questions the contract work that Phila relies on to cover her costs. The economics of love weigh in.
Tracy Chapman sings about working in the market as a checkout girl and the possibility of getting promoted. Phila worries about running out of money. “This thing that determines so much, reveals so little yet so much.” Will she be able to continue to travel back-and-forth or should they consider committing to the relationship and settling somewhere together.
Responsibilities align when Tracy Chapman sings about quitting school to stay home and take care of her father and Phila wonders: “What do we do when we will die for our parents?”
Zé observes: “Love is a kind of condition to happiness surpassing all transactions and the system of work.” His desire for Phila is overwhelming, leading him to wonder if love can offer a kind of stability like money can. “Remember that our love may too be a roof for our heads.”
“Won’t have to drive too far
Just ‘cross the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living”
The prose is pulsating. Big ideas stretch the language. The rhythm is unfamiliar at times, as though originally composed in someone else’s mother tongue.
Desire stretches practicalities. There are references to others’ ideas about relationship and social structures, about roles and identities, about artworks and -isms. Passion leads to philosophy and round again.
Phila and Zé keep their relationship to themselves but yearn to inhabit it more completely, to demonstrate to distrustful onlookers (and to themselves) that it can endure.
Different backgrounds, different religions and perhaps most importantly, different expectations: “So much reality and reverie.”
As with Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, I feel both intimately involved in the story and determinedly marginalised.
I’m in the car, and I can feel the night air on my skin. But I’m in the backseat and not part of the conversation.
Another leaf-blower and another yard: on the margins of awareness. By the time the construction workers break for lunch, I am finished reading this slim volume.
The neighbour boy has come and gone, is now likely roaming the aisles of a Dollarama, where he hopes to gather more small cars for his collection.
All the noise and the everyday activity, intense and hectic, the talk of dollar stores and toys, and I’m thinking about Phila buying shampoo to bring back to Brazil.
I’m imagining the boys in Zé’s family pulling packaged cars from a suitcase.
“You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Anyplace is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we’ll make something
Me, myself I got nothing to prove”