Kevin said that the two cultures were irreconcilable. From most anyone else I would consider such a statement a cop-out. I glanced over at Kevin’s beautiful Brazilian wife and at Nadine’s animated face across the table. Maybe the cultures cannot be reconciled, but surely the people can, are being, right here and now.
Nadine leans forward over the table. She speaks quickly, her intensity clearly coming from her memory itself and not a flare for story telling. She is speaking about ghosts. In bed, back in her childhood home, she comes to consciousness above her body. She feels as if someone has pulled her up out of it. She tries to get back. She begins to panic. With a jerk, she manages to return. Her heart is pounding, she looks over at her sleeping sister.
Instinctively, I engage her. Now her words are tumbling over themselves, with quick pauses as she searches for the English, occasionally slipping into Portuguese. Lily glances up, qualifying Nadine’s story.
“In Brazil, we believe in ghosts, it’s not like here in America…” Kevin cuts in-
“It doesn’t matter whether we believe in ghosts or whether we believe what she’s saying actually happened. It’s clear that she believes it, and that’s what is important.”
The waitress approaches smiling. She will tolerate our changing numbers and chaotic ordering. We have called her beautiful. The female attention at the table has left the conversation. We watch Rodriguez as he makes his way across the patio towards us. He beams an infectious smile as he says hello, blue eyes sparkling beneath long dusty curls. Kevin picks up on the rise in the collective pulse.
“He’s got to be one of the seven most gorgeous men in California.”
Lily rolls her eyes.
“I’m not even attracted to him anymore.” Now it is Audrey’s turn to roll her eyes.
Lily goes on to complain about how her young lover, crashing at her place for several weeks now, is driving her crazy. The conversation bends away from ghosts and around the trials and tribulations of love. Inevitably it settles on courting in America. Someone complains about American men, how they think that when you say “No” it means “No.” The four Americans at the table begin to laugh. With the exception of myself, the Americans at the table are all men. Nadine’s boyfriend throws his hands up helplessly, admitting to the problems he’s encountered while dating Nadine. I smile to myself as the American men defend their position on no. Lily presses the point. She likes when a guy works for her affection. It makes her feel desired. Audrey concurs, it isn’t about manipulation, it’s what we’re used to. Someone brings up the misunderstandings that inevitably follow. The manipulation of “She said no, but really meant yes…” That echoes in the American mind with rape charges and court cases.
I explain that in America the idea that a woman will always (should always) say no initially, leaves her vulnerable to continued advances whether or not she wants them. This puts her in a position of not being taken seriously, of devaluing her word. Audrey disagrees. She says it’s a form of power, not vulnerability. The woman is controlling the interaction. If she means no, she will say it in such a way that there is no doubt. Steve decides to summarize.
“In Brazil no means maybe, maybe means yes and yes means I agree now go away. In America maybe means no, yes means maybe and no means get the fuck away.” Naturally, the topic glides into another areas of cultural difference-nudity. Audrey was shocked recently when a woman at a party bared her breasts in front of her leering male friends. And yet we have all seen the chagrin on the faces of female American friends at the sight of Brazilian women dancing in string bikinis…It was here that Kevin made his comment.
I’ve come to accept what I see as contradictions in the Brazilian women I know. They seem to be endlessly criticizing each other, themselves, and strangers for how they look and act. They always notice body shape, features, underwear lines. At the same time they take under their wing anyone with a good heart, beautiful, ugly, socially adept or not without hesitation. When I first met Lily, I noted how much conversation was spent on physical appearance. I wondered at how she seemed even more materialistic than her American counterparts. But what I’ve learned is that with her, it’s simply that. Conversation.
Our smiling waitress arrives with pizza. Steve is discussing a bachelor pad in Florida. Nadine slips up and mentions a strip club she and Lily went to…
”That was before I met you” she quickly assures Steve. Half the table bursts into laughter, the other looks uncertain. The conversation turns to strip club.