O sangue frio de uma mãe. That’s how Grandpa tells the story. Tio Luis was a kid and to prove to Grandpa he wasn’t scared of heights, he climbed out onto the balcony and tried to homem-aranhã himself from one ledge to the other. I imagine my uncle, maybe eight or ten years old, grasping the outside railing of the balcony, his back to the open air, planning the best way to grasp the wall with only his hands and his feet. The Kida family lived in an apartment over ten floors up. What it took, according to Grandpa, for a mother to not scream out and to instead firmly grasp her child from behind the railing and pull him back to safety, was the cold blood of a mother.
I guess, in English, the expression would be nerves of steel, but I prefer the Portuguese. You have to be coolheaded to save your child. The writer Claudia Dey argues that mothers are the makers of death; the creation of life is also the creation of another death. I think you need something cold within you to truly realize it. You have to know death to preserve and love life. Nerves of steel sounds like a mechanical replacement; sangue frio makes the change total and permanent in your body. Besides, I like the way Grandpa tells the story so gravely: o sangue frio de uma mãe. Cold blood, something only mothers can have.
My mother, despite looking so much like Grandma, takes more after Grandpa in the rhythm of her voice, her gestures, her cautioning tone. I remember hearing Grandpa’s seriousness in my mother, when I was little, at home in Connecticut: Nina—Mom always called me Nina—do you know what to do if you’re caught in a riptide? You swim diagonally against it. You keep swimming, even if you’re tired, you have to keep swimming against the riptide until you reach the end. That’s why you swim diagonally—at some point, you have to find the end point. Then you’re free. My mother had been caught in riptides when she was a kid growing up in Rio, Brazil. She wanted to make sure I knew how to save myself. Every time I entered the ocean water, I would tread the water cautiously, wondering if something would ever pull me back or into it. Nothing ever did, but at least I knew how to get out. I walked to shore and looked back at the sea. Maybe next time, it would, and Mom’s words would come true. She named me Marina, of the sea, because of her love of the ocean. Maybe one day, I thought, I would really feel like I was part of the sea. I would feel my mother’s ocean, the one she loved to reminisce about, the one with riptides.
Swimming in the ocean was the closest I ever experienced to flying. Or at least, as a kid, I had imagined that the buoyancy of the water would feel like the lift of the open sky. I had been on airplanes since I was three, flying from the States to family in Brazil; I have always known that the sky looked different from the ocean I swam in. But between the sky and the sea, I connected them. There’s the famous bossa nova song, “Aquarela,” that Mom taught me. From the moment I heard the lyrics “Tanto céu e mar, um beijo azul,” I knew this blue kiss was something real. I searched the horizon line for the meeting of those two expanses of blue, and I smiled.
I wanted to be like my mom. I wanted to love the ocean as much as she did. I already looked remarkably like her—my own brother mistook an old childhood picture of my mom with one of me—so I wanted to prove I was like her. She grew up a tomboy, so I wanted to be less girly. She could notice intricate patterns, fold origami with precise, sharp folds. I refolded and refolded the paper until it went soft in my hands. Still, I had kept trying. I only gave up trying to be her when I realized that I loved words more than she ever did. I gave up when I realized my childhood would never be hers. I knew when, on the flight back from Brazil, I would peer out the airplane window at the isolated suburbs below and search for deciduous New England forests that I called home. My eyes strained past the horizon line hoping for a glimpse. I would press my palm against the cold glass and watch the film of water spread around the heat of my hand and I would think, it’s just like home. Just like the winter, when I would look out the window on a snowy day.
My birthday is in December. My relatives in Brazil would call me, one by one, to wish me happy birthday. They would ask if it was snowing because in Brazil, in the other hemisphere, it was summer, and they were having a barbecue or going to the beach. They would ask if I was going to go see them later that year, in August, when it would be my summer vacation and their winter. I didn’t get to see them every year, but in the years my family did go to Brazil, my relatives would take me and my brother to the beach. In the dead of Brazil’s winter, my brother and I spent hours in the water because even then, the Brazilian water was warmer than Connecticut’s. The few other beachgoers would look at us and ask our parents sitting on the sand, What’s wrong with your kids? The strangers were kind, of course, and they always asked the question jokingly, but they always expected a serious answer. Oh, we’re visiting from the States, my mom would say before gesturing to us kids shouting in the water. They’re American.
As an American, it took me a long time to get used to being Brazilian. From joking and friendly teasing between strangers, the slightest provocation when I was little would make me cry and in Brazil, I cried a lot. I made so many mistakes there: mixing up the names of my mother’s many aunts, forgetting the names of family friends, lacking the know-how to eat certain tropical fruits, going blank when asked the simplest of questions, greeting people by kissing the wrong cheek (or worse, directly on the lips). But still, despite these faux-pas, I looked forward to Brazil. To be in a place, dare I call it a home, where everyone called me by the nickname my mother gave me. Nina. My whole family calls me by that name, their São Paulo accent hitting a nearly Italian cadence and enunciation.
But in America, I was Marina. Muhreenuh: the syllables slurred together so fast that my best friend, in kindergarten, spelled my name “Mrrena.” At six years old, I was irked she had butchered my name so badly. But I choked back my indignation and thanked her for the card she had written me. I knew that my own love of words, even back then, was a personal thing. She wouldn’t have understood. Eventually, classmates would mistake me for the other Asian girl in our school and call me by the wrong name entirely. After those instances, I stopped taking issue with people spelling my name wrong as long as I knew it was Marina they wanted to be with.
I never had a nickname in English. The closest one I ever got was given to me by the friend I made in the fourth grade. We would play make-believe and she would yell for me, “My-nuh! Mine-uh!” while she chased after me. I would run and answer, breathlessly, in another silly voice. We would laugh until our sides split from the running and our broken giggles. It was good to be ten years old when the only limit to our fun was the end-of-recess whistle. But even the whistle didn’t stop us, not really. There were also long afternoons spent at her house, in the backyard, filming terrible comedy sketches and making arts and crafts.
One particular afternoon, we were playing on her swing, a simple plank of wood with a rope threaded through it. The rope itself was knotted to a steep-angled branch, meaning the swing rotated around the circumference of the tree. My friend wound the rope around the tree, ran diagonal to it, and jumped onto the seat of the swing, spiraling around the tree and hitting her back against the trunk. Now you try.
I was too scared to run and jump. It looked painful. I didn’t want to get hurt, and I was too embarrassed to try only to catastrophically fail. I tried hiding my apprehension, but she noticed it anyway. What are you, a landlubber?
Even through my frustration, I thought, That’s such a weird word. So American. I hated the idea that I was a landlubber, that I was unaccustomed to being at sea. What I hated more was that, through her inarticulacy, the word also sounded like land-lover. And I didn’t want to prove that I had any sentimental attachment to the land, or to anything. I had too much pride. So I swallowed and wound the rope to an even tighter, even more precarious angle.
This friendship would later become fraught. But I didn’t know that back then, when I planned my flight around the tree. I didn’t know that this girl who was teaching me, at that moment, to be brave would later teach me to be scared. She would teach me, after her suicide attempt the next year, that life was precious. She would teach me to listen, and then to listen for dear life. She would teach me to hold her and attend to her jagged breathing after a panic attack. She would teach me that life was worth saving and that trying to save her life would come at the cost of both of our childhoods. I didn’t know that, years later, I would have to pick up the pieces of myself that I had lost in the name of what I called our friendship. But again, I didn’t know. What I did know, at least, was to still my breath, to calm down, to hold myself. In the fall air, sweat cooled on my forehead. I ran my diagonal and I jumped, knowing the air would catch me.