My Songs of Now and Then: A Memoir

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Alberto said rich Americans were always asking to buy the house. We walked down to the sea, picking our way across black volcanic rocks. Alberto picked up a handful of seashells. Alberto and Dona Maria lived twenty-five years in Canada, raising their children there. He had his guitar with him in Canada, but he said he never played it because he had no free time or friends who had free time to play music with him. We ate our meal cooked in the old stone oven in the main house, which had a modern kitchen with a microwave and an ice maker.

There was bread straight from the fire and pumpkins from the garden sliced in half and sprinkled with brown sugar and transformed into something intense by their stone-and-fire roasting. He drank at least a liter of red wine by himself and kept filling up my glass from another bottle. Alberto had made his first Portuguese guitar twenty years before he learned how to play it. I had seen it danced at festas in California. Alberto danced me around, showing the steps. Then he sat back down to his guitar. Martha Lee was an old-school ballerina.

She stood as straight as a pole and was just as slender. She wore her eternally jet-black hair pulled back in a bun.

She had a toy poodle that she carried under one arm. Martha Lee was no fan of jazz dance, but that was what the kids wanted, so she had begrudgingly added me, a mediocre-at-best dancer with minimal ballet training to the roster. I had one class of ten-year-olds, who were particularly klutzy even for ten-year-olds. On the day in question, we were going through a jazz warm-up, which involved isolating different body parts. The idea was that the whole class would move the same body part at the same time, keeping the beat.

This was not happening. I kept trying slower and slower music until I settled on a thudding Prince song that even uncoordinated children could follow. We moved down from our heads to our ribs to isolating our hips, which involved thrusting out one hip to the far corner of the room, then the other hip in the other direction, and then swiveling our pelvises: right-center-left-center-and- arooooooound.

I was fired on the spot. There was Prince.

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I danced around the kitchen a bit as ordered. They each thought the other was a terrible dancer. We danced until we were flushed and breathless. On one song, Luisa and Dona Maria sang along, and they all wept. It was a song by Amalia Rodrigues, the Queen of Fado. The words resist a different language. I cry my own nostalgia I weep in pity for myself I cry, absorbed in my own longing.

We talked late into the evening. I said that at first I had thought it meant only California. But now I understood it was the entire diaspora, including the Boston area and Canada. Alberto laughed. Those of us who live between worlds just know the Tenth Island better.

No matter where I have lived — I have never left my island.

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From the hotel I could see Mount Brasil. Its outline looked like a sphinx with its legs stretching out into the sea, guarding the city. It all whispered of Havana and Cartagena de Indias, of China and Brazil — places that in turn had adopted Portuguese touches. There are two steady winds that circle the earth. The air blows counterclockwise in the Northern hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern hemisphere: the trade winds. In the seafaring era, routes depended on those winds and the ocean currents. The only way to take a galleon filled with gold and silver from the New World back to Europe passed through the Azores.

The lights from boats in the marina made squiggly colored lines on the water. Moonlight gleamed on the black-and-white patterns of cobblestone streets in front of the hotel.

My Songs of Now and Then: a Memoir

I was too jet-lagged to sleep, and I wanted to be out there. They were skeptical and bought me a small, fifty- dollar guitar. It was a little Yamaha with a big cracked bubble on its wooden face. Damaged and dinky, I still loved it. He taught me how to read music and play simple melodies note for note.

My hands were small and the tips of my fingers protested mightily against this new endeavor but a guitar was a tool with which one could make music in secret so I was utterly committed. My teacher praised my patience and my progress. When I learned a new chord, I would put it next to every other chord I knew, just to hear what happens.

I would go round and round with these melodies and scales and chords, juxtaposing. There was a spiral staircase up to an attic loft in the donut house the hayloft in the carriage house and my brother had claimed it. As a teenager, back in the donut house and on medication, he had finally achieved his own room. Then he got an after- school job and earned enough money to buy a stereo.

Rock and roll thumped through the floor and wailed down the stairs.

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The attic was still an open hole in the ceiling and had no door per se, but to him it was Shangri-La. While I was getting to know my acoustic guitar, my brother had a passing fancy to play, too, but he wanted an electric guitar. He got his hands on one for a while but never really played it much.

We were in very different worlds with our guitars, my brother and I. He had a goal and then he abandoned it for the next goal. I had no goal and just kept on with my juxtapositions.

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He convinced them that my dedication to my instrument warranted getting me a better one. My mother and father dutifully bought me another Yamaha that cost a hundred dollars more. I was thrilled with my new full-size guitar and fell asleep playing it underneath the Christmas tree. It was magic, smelling the tree and squinting up though its branches and the hazy colored lights that spoke of everything merry and bright.

I lay there on my back and played softly after everyone went to sleep.

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That Christmas was particularly fraught and my father and I had gone to get the tree the night before, on Christmas Eve, as a form of escape and a last- ditch attempt at normalcy. I remember thinking, Look at the people out here buying trees on Christmas Eve. The silences were so thick that year in the donut house, they could choke you. My father and I set up the tree and decorated it while bad vibes rained down upon us. This was an era in Buffalo when fire engine sirens were a very common thing to hear.

Basically, Buffalo had become nothing but one empty, dilapidated building after another, suddenly worth less than their insurance policies and the lots they stood on. It was a sorry running joke, the constant sirens. By the time I had eyes enough to see such things, my city looked like bombs had been dropped on it. That particular Christmas night, the sirens came more numerous than usual. It sounded like a really big fire this time and close. I bundled up and went out in the dark to find it.

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The Trico windshield wiper factory burned that night and was never recovered. As I stood back from the assembled crowd and watched the huge factory burn, the melodrama was so perfect I think I may have fallen in love with it. Christmas night. Self- pity is a trap but when you already feel trapped, it can be a comfort. My first guitar was a turning point for me and Michael was the centrifugal force that did the turning. Michael was a dapper man with an expansive wardrobe of secondhand fedoras and vests.

I was nine and he was thirtysomething but no amount of unlikeliness could stop our friendship.