The Old Apartment


São Paulo from above.

São Paulo, Brazil

“So he’s just going to let us in without identification? He’s not gonna think we’re trying to break in or something?” I glance at the stern-looking doorman guarding the apartment building.

Rosa, with the confidence I’ve admired since we became friends on the first day of kindergarten, stares at me. “I’ll just tell him I’m Felipe’s daughter.”

She strides over to the doorman, greets him with a polite “Oi,” and begins explaining the situation. How this is the apartment where she spent the first few years of her life, where she has spent almost every summer of her childhood since then, and where her father still lives during the semesters when he teaches at the University of São Paulo. Unlike most visits, this time she is staying at her aunt’s place nearby, as her parents are renting out the top floor of the old apartment to a local artist who is using it part-time as a studio. We hope she’s not there today.

Or at least that’s what I pick out from what little Portuguese I can understand after four years of high school Spanish. Either way it works, and the doorman hands her a key.

Rosa flashes me a huge grin as she gestures to follow her through the gated driveway.

“You’re finally going to see where I lived.”

Growing up in Boston, summers always brought popsicles, trips to the local pool, and a series of letters addressed from Brazil, detailing whatever shenanigans Rosa and her little sister were instigating on their annual trip back. I always felt a little lost those months without my partner (and usually ringleader) in crime.

At the creative arts summer camps I went to in Rosa’s absence, I sometimes found myself looking around for similarly charismatic, outgoing girls to follow around, disappointed and a little relieved when there weren’t any. Arriving home at the end of the day, I’d quickly tear open the manila folder with international postage awaiting me, containing the script of a play Rosa was staging in her family’s São Paulo living room. Occasionally, on the glorious day in late August when Rosa returned to the States, I would receive a doll or other small gift from the country I had heard so much about but had no real way of conceptualizing.

Finally, after more than fourteen years, I had taken up an open invitation to stay with Rosa and her aunt in São Paulo over winter break. Besides the bountiful, delicious new fruits, and the stunning art exhibits and public parks we had explored, this apartment was what I was most curious about. In what bedroom had all those letters been penned? Where had all of those family plays been rehearsed?

When we finally cross the threshold into the old apartment, I almost trip over the pile of mail that has accumulated during the many months Rosa’s family has been away. The washing machine in the hallway is partly disassembled, with an instruction manual and some small pieces lying on top. The only signs of current inhabitation are the blender and cooking supplies the artist subletter leaves in the kitchen for the days when she works here. My gaze is pulled next toward the living room, which is decorated with chairs and couches nearly identical to the ones on which I spent countless playdates watching movies and building forts in Boston.

In Rosa’s old room, picture books in Portuguese are stacked by the dozen in cardboard boxes on the twin bed. Plastic toys meant for a four-year-old lie strewn across the floor. Rosa picks up one of the dusty book covers.

“My dad read these to me all the time.”

Of all the books Rosa and I raced each other to finish first, this Portuguese title was never among them. The words on the jacket are faded, but like the billboards and menus of São Paulo, I am still tempted to pick out meaning from them.

Finally, Rosa wanders up the metal spiral staircase to the roof of the apartment building. She comes to a stop at the fence that surrounds the perimeter and stares out at the city.

“This is where we’d come when it rained.” She nods to the blue-grey tiles that stretch across the roof and mirror the massive, cloudless sky above. “Me and Hannah would run around and dance under the storm for hours.”

Lost in thought, she goes back to peering at the streets below. I imagine all the Rosas I’ve known throughout the years, the ones obsessed with Harry Potter, then Les Miserables, and finally Hamilton, returning to this very spot to dance with her little sister, and all the rainstorms that must have provided accompaniment. Although I’ve never been to this apartment or even country before, I’m hit with a second-hand nostalgia of sorts, for a Rosa I never had the chance to meet until today.

On our way out, she points to a side room attached to the kitchen.

“This is where Terezinha lived. She cooked for us and helped look after me and Hannah when we were little.”

Another name I’ve never heard before; another reminder there are things about Rosa that I didn’t know. And, as she reminds me, another piece of evidence that I am not in America anymore. In addition to the fact that many middle class homes here have live-in help, there are other subtle differences between the two countries that frequently take us both by surprise.

“One thing about Brazil that I’ve only noticed now that you’re here,” Rosa says to me when we stroll through an outdoor market on our way back to the subway, “is how loud the vendors yell at you to buy their shit. Before, that was just how the market was. But this is noisy as hell.”

On cue, a man gestures enthusiastically for us to try his guava, Rosa’s and my favorite Brazilian fruit. Again she strides over with ease, slipping into the casual banter that follows her so effortlessly no matter what language she speaks.

She is clearly happy to get to use her Portuguese, and so I step back, letting Rosa deal with the whole interaction, nodding and answering questions when she translates them for me. I’ve learned a few phrases, but still peer anxiously at Rosa to order for us in restaurants and ask directions from bus drivers.

In some ways, this routine feels familiar. When we were little girls, Rosa was always the bubbly, chatty one who invented new games and occasionally talked back to teachers. There’s an old VHS tape of us acting as twin sisters in a school play, where we had to improvise one small section. Whenever I watch it, I cringe during that scene, listening to second-grade Rosa spout witty dialogue as I tag on a “yeah” or simply nod at the end of her lines.

It took years for me to feel like I was no longer living in her shadow. Summer before junior year of high school, after Rosa had left for Brazil, I attended my first creative writing workshop and began drafting, for the first time I can remember, a voice distinct from hers, paragraph by paragraph. It was only after I attended more writing workshops, and she ventured deeper into theater, that I really considered us individuals and at last creative equals. Today though, I hang onto her every word when she translates the world around us, and onto her arm when she guides me through packed bus terminals.

Finally, Rosa stops reminiscing with the guava vendor about the market’s previous summers. He hands me a freshly cut slice and I accept it eagerly, grateful that enjoyment of the tender pink fruit transcends all language barriers.

A market in São Paulo.

The next day, Rosa takes me to the nearest beach, a 90 minute bus ride away. As we cross the crowded waterfront located mere steps from rows of skyscrapers, she makes a beeline for two vacant chairs nestled under an umbrella.

“Doesn’t this explicitly say something about being for hotel residents only?” I squint at the words spray-painted onto the seats.

“There’s so many chairs lying around, they can’t patrol them all. When they kick us out we’ll leave,” Rosa shrugs as she removes her flip flops.

She makes the right call, and we spend the next five hours basking in the shade, watching the waves swell in the distance.

“I’m going to get some food, be back in a bit,” Rosa announces suddenly, flipping on her hat and abandoning me just like that.

I feel my heartrate climb steadily as I survey the scene, praying that the hotel workers will not choose this moment to crack down on moochers like us.

One of many beach vendors approaches, selling towels. Willing myself to unleash my inner Rosa, I smile and use the few Portuguese words I know, mixed with some good old-fashioned bluffing, to politely decline. By the time Rosa returns with a skewer of grilled cheese cubes for us to split, some of my anxiety has melted in the hot, seaside air, and I gesture lazily for her to sit back down.

The night before we leave, Rosa and I sit at a local bar with our last glasses of chopp, Brazil’s nationally loved beer. Staring out the wide-open windows, I relish these last moments of summer breeze before we return to a snow-covered Boston, at the same time looking forward to the familiar sights of my home city. On the walls of the bar hang giant posters displaying the major public parks of São Paulo. Rosa goes one by one, naming which of them we have been to and which hold strong memories of when she used to live here.

She points at the poster above our table, depicting a park where we tried to buy fresh coconut water earlier in the week, only to learn they are no longer allowed to chop the tops off using a machete like when Rosa was a little girl.

“That was also where Hannah and I made up all those wild make-believe games I used to tell you about,” she explains. “I really liked getting to show you the park.”

I nod and sip on my chopp, letting the chatter of the bar’s Friday night crowd fill the pause in our conversation.

Later that night we make our way back up the cobblestoned paths only somewhat less gracefully than when we came down them. While our destination, Rosa’s aunt’s apartment, is a very short walk from the bar, it’s in a neighborhood she’s less familiar with compared to the streets surrounding her family’s old apartment.

At the intersection before our block, Rosa glances back and forth, eventually pressing the crosswalk light. After a moment’s hesitation, I step forward and grab her hand.

“Wait! This is the part we always mess up. I think the turnoff for your aunt’s house is this road, not the next.”

Nodding, she lets me lead her gently through the humid night. Around us, São Paulo still pulses with energy as its citizens nurse a final glass of chopp or espresso at one of many neighborhood dives. Rosa and I walk those last few minutes in silence, the clacking of shoe soles onto concrete the only rhythmic conversation we need.


Isabel Meyers is an editorial assistant for The Common and co-editor in chief of Amherst College’s student literary magazine, The Circus. Her poetry is forthcoming in Mangrove Journal.

Photos by author

The Old Apartment

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