Saudade: A Personal Essay by David Martinez
As an itinerant, I’ve learned to leave behind almost any place and any person I have ever loved, learned to carry their absence with me, learned to use that natural vacuum they leave, that natural negative space which builds and weighs on me, forming a comforter I don’t know I could ever give up.
It’s in my blood. Before Europeans came to this side of the world, my ancestors migrated up and down the northeastern coast of Brazil in a crescent shape, always next to the ocean—or in the arid interior of what would become the state of Ceará. Or both. It’s hard to tell since that history is lost to me. What I know is that I carry their blood, and they journeyed. My African ancestors were brought stuffed in boats across the Atlantic. They were sold at auctions or escaped, or their children were peddled away. That history is lost to me as well, but I know they were forced to travel to the New World by my Portuguese ancestors from across the ocean—the Portuguese famous for their sailing, colonization, and early dominance over the slave trade. Most of my European blood comes from my North American ancestors who fled the Church of England, or they came over from Switzerland or Scotland. They gathered and trekked out west with pioneer handcarts, moving out to California and Wyoming and Utah. The little Jewish blood I have is synonymous with diaspora. My genes have been nomadic for eons.
I do have a place I was born—though it would feel wrong to say that I am from there—Moscow, Idaho, in the Palouse, on the border with Washington, not two-hundred miles from Canada. My dad was attending the University of Idaho, and a year before I was born my mother had flown in from Fortaleza, Brazil, in the middle of February, a few months after the death of her father. They were in transit, and I guess that rolled over on to me. We drifted through a combination of apartments and my grandparents’ house as my mother created a daycare in our homes and my dad worked Domino’s delivery and as a video-rental clerk while finishing school. Moscow is green and hilly with humid shadows. I remember the sidewalk in front of my aunt’s old house was cracked. She had a garden. Other than that, all I remember is a dark apartment and a hospital that might not even have been in Moscow. I was much more familiar with the neighboring town of Genesee, where my grandparents lived. Moscow now is little more than pale imprints to me. There is still a faint impression of connection when I see pictures—I haven’t been to the town in over twenty years. It’s a strange feeling, an appreciation. But I was born a foreigner there and it feels like I was a visitor who was allowed to stay for a while, and most places I’ve moved since carry that same sentiment—a series of spaces other people are from and I have visited. Northern Idaho belongs to other people. It belongs to my dad. But not to me. I was born there but am only from there inasmuch as that is where I came into the world.
Genesee is my grandparents’ basement where I stayed whenever we visited or moved there. It’s the school I never attended, but where I broke my arm. It’s the new-asphalt smell around the granary where my grandfather worked and I rode my bike. It’s a little girl with big glasses and dark hair whose name I can’t remember and an old woman whose name, I think, was Mary and who used to tell me how much I looked like my father. But that woman is dead, and my grandparents don’t live there anymore. They moved to Arizona, and that sense of home I felt in Genesee followed them. They are two of the few people I have never learned to leave behind.
My parents never carried a sense of locale, or any type of permanence, attached to them. They’ve been almost as peripatetic as I have. Besides moving from Idaho to Puerto Rico to Florida and on, my family went on constant driving trips as if the key to a happy home was in incessant traveling. We drove everywhere: to Yellowstone, to Craters of the Moon, through and over mountains when we lived in Rigby. My dad, who is half deaf, always played music loud, so loud it would drown out the sound of speaking. Whenever we went up north to visit my grandparents we went through the long and solitary Lolo pass through the mountains between Idaho and Montana. We drove through there once during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, the car vibrating REM, and later Mozart, amidst the lightning. What would have been fear of all that blue voltage and the thunder shaking the ground became part of an adventure like I would have read about in a book—the electricity fusing with a car full of music and motion, catching brief glimpses of the forest along the sides of the road that rushed past us in shadow, creating a somatic imprint in the eyes of what was previously only dark. As a child it was magic and remains one of the most beautiful images I have.
Even on the tiny isle of Puerto Rico we drove, from the Atlantic to the Caribbean on tropical-mountain roads. From San Juan to Ponce. From El Yunque to Mayagüez. Once around the perimeter of the island, just because.
We drove everywhere, not speaking, listening, until we never wanted to go home again. In fact, the period in which my family had the hardest time was when we moved to Florida and stopped drifting for a while—our immobility making us mad.
We’d known Florida before we moved there. One summer, when I was between ten and eleven, my dad got a gig teaching a class in Georgia. We drove there from Rigby, Idaho, passing through all the states we could until the coast. We stayed on an island then as well and I spent all the time I could at the beach. I walked to the ocean with my younger brother and sister from the condo we rented on St. Simons—and later the Embassy Suites attached to a mall that we stayed at for almost two months. We went all over. We drove from St. Simon’s Island in Georgia to Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando. We saw Civil War sites. One weekend our family went out to Savannah and I was floored at the thick, timeworn air that felt like it was pushing that history through me. We went another weekend to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine—not knowing that we would visit the ruins of de Leon’s house in Puerto Rico a little over a year later, or that we would move to Florida almost four years after that. By the time we got back to Rigby, it was too late. All I wanted to do was move, keep that momentum, wander through the physical imprints of time and history.
Though we lived in Rigby a long time—maybe five years—it’s split into two categories for me: the blue house, and the brick house; childhood and early adolescence; before spending the summer in Georgia, and after. My memories, impressions, and moods can often be triggered through color and shades of light—each place with its own palette. Early Rigby is marked with a dim living room, hot on freezing winter nights. It’s the yellow-orange afternoons spent wandering the town barefoot. It’s building a raft on green, summer lawns after reading Huckleberry Finn and imagining that I would float through the brown, local-farm canals, out to the Snake River, down the Colorado, and out to the ocean. It’s the devastation when my little raft broke when I threw it into the water. Adolescent Rigby is where I spent my grey afternoons waiting for the date we would move to Puerto Rico—my father had been talking about it for a long time. It is riding black asphalt on a yellow or purple skateboard surrounded by my friends. It’s the smell of the glue on the deck and oil in the bearings. Still, Rigby is not home. I was a stranger there too, like in Moscow or Genesee. I had my skate buddies who were always with me when the cops brought us home after curfew or went with me to the mini ramp in an old barn. But the entire time I knew that my friends would stay and grow up together and I would leave. It was preordained, and my knowledge of the preordination constructed a natural gap between them and me, the town and me, Idaho and me—this separation fashioning my relationship with almost every place I’ve ever been, and most people as well. We’d moved to Rigby from Post Falls, a town up north by Coeur d’Alene, when I was in second grade—and between the constant traveling and my general bookishness I was still a foreigner when we left for Puerto Rico a little over five-years later.
I can feel a shade of light that reminds me of São Paulo and seconds later that light will feel like LA, only to remind me of the rooftop on our old house in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. This will happen in a matter of seconds, and I will find myself wondering whatever happened to the people I never knew but could see from the Bayamon rooftop walking out of a lonely, Catholic church I drew in a notebook once when I was fourteen and stoned. I never set foot in that church. It was not mine. But the drawing is, and if I push my finger to one of the charcoal lines and lift it to look at the mark I am reminded that it was real, that the rooftop, church, and charcoal were real. I was there, and all of those people and non-people are a part of me.
If I let it, that is what being placeless will feel like: watching something that isn’t mine. Wondering. Longing. Witnessing. Then leaving to long for and witness something else. I’ll convince myself that many of my relationships with people follow the same pattern. True, most of my people are tied to the places they are from and I have left them. Eventually I lose contact with the majority, becoming unable to forge intimate bonds with new people because I know that at any moment I’ll leave and be forgotten—but I suppose that’s how it goes with most. People begin to fade and those I love become fictions. My fictional persons stack up. I’ll forget faces but find familiar movements in strangers. I’ll fill in spaces I’ve forgotten with what I can remember from others. I have yet to run into many of the friends I used to have in Idaho or Puerto Rico or São Paulo or Florida, but I imagine that though they may be in some ways similar to when I knew them they would be more alien than familiar—the way cities change over time, or cities stay the same but people change and can never see the place again for what it used to be.
Fortaleza did both. There was a Fortaleza from when I was a child, which now is faded. There was a Fortaleza when I was a teenager, and everything was new and wild and charged. A Fortaleza the time I fell in love with a girl I have not learned to leave, which serves more as a setting for the girl, who is now my wife, to exist in rather than an entity of its own. This Fortaleza is an extension of my wife and me, and everything contained within the city at that time is a description of ourselves. There was the Fortaleza I lived in at the end of my twenties, which by then had no more magic, just a faint and creeping fear at knowing that it was changed and would never be the same, or safe, again. The city has deteriorated over time, become more dangerous, more dilapidated. Last time my wife and I lived there we spent days mourning its decline. I will spend my lifetime going back, yearning for a restoration.
It can be easier to think that roaming has made me alone, turned me into someone who sketches churchgoers from my rooftop and wanders the world in agony, but that isn’t the truth. For all the foreignness I’ve felt I’ve also acquired familiarities—solidarities. For example, I didn’t belong in Puerto Rico. I am not Puerto Rican. My Spanish at the time I lived there was terrible, and after more than three years on the island it only became passable at best. But I love the Isla del Encanto, and it has become one of my most important homes. It was one of the few places that when it was time to leave I wanted to stay.
I think part of what made me love Puerto Rico was that there was a primal familiarity, like maybe within the landscape I would be able to find something missing in my blood, my Latin side, my tropical side, the side I had been without in the whiteness of Idaho. Perhaps an antidote for the loneliness that came from my rootlessness. I used to wander Old San Juan and read about Caribbean pirates. I used to stare at the drawings etched into the walls in the jail in El Morro. I used to walk in and out of African shops, various art galleries, and on roads that slaves built. I always watched my feet on the cobblestone and thought of the builders—knowing that my ancestors were also slaves, but in a country I did not yet know. I thought of the Taíno, knowing I had ancestors who were uprooted, murdered, and unnamed, but in a different country I did not yet know. Puerto Rico was almost mine, a reflection of at least a history if not a homeland.
There was this plaza I used to skate that faced the ancient El Morro fortress and ocean in Old San Juan. I used to stare at the Atlantic and think about how much older the water was even in relation to the fortress, how long before the Spaniards warred and enslaved it sat there in flux. Ocean scent goes way back for me, long before I can remember, and it is associated with immensity and longing and comfort. Even when in the ocean I desire it. There is something in that immensity that pulls me toward it, calling to mind adventures that I feel but have never experienced—memories I’ve never had.
My earliest memories don’t come from Idaho. They date back to time spent in Fortaleza when I was three, and a love in the shape and sway of ocean emanates from there. The memories come in flashes: an old woman in a rocking chair—my great-grandmother—and a parrot in the window; sleeping in a white hammock in a room full of sun with my vovó—my grandmother; outside baths in a tin basin; that taste of ocean. It’s a ghost place I can never get back to, though I’ve often tried. That place remained a ghost even when I moved into that same house as an adult—the house built by the grandfather I never met. Maybe it’s not real. Maybe it’s a pull, a desperate pull that tells me there is somewhere I could have come from but do not. After all, I wasn’t raised there. I didn’t see Fortaleza from the time I was three until I was eighteen. It’s another home that was never really mine, even if for a long time I wanted it to be.
Some of that ghost feeling carries into my Cearense family. It connects me to my cousins: Marília and Natália. We have pictures together as babies, smiling, laughing—my ghost sisters who until I was eighteen were rumors, people I only knew through photographs and an occasional phone call. My vovó was mythical. She was the one constant that appeared in my mother’s rare stories of her childhood, and she was the one I wanted to know the most, one I never learned to leave even after she died. Titia—my aunt—I already knew. She had lived with us in Puerto Rico and in Idaho and was a relief to see after so many years. When our family arrived after our fifteen-year exile to the house my grandfather built, I sat on the floor with my cousins and we talked through the night until morning—our ghost existences having already made us familiar with one another. It felt to me like I had known them all my life. In fact, I had felt their absence all my life.
The feeling of absence has a word in Portuguese that does not translate into English: saudade. A person can feel saudade or can have saudade. It turns the invisible into an entity, and it is only dispelled if killed. If a person reunites with someone whose absence they carry they’ve mataram a saudade—killed the absence of. If not killed, the saudade can be permanent, and I think it’s that permanent absence that fuels my obsession with movement, that forms the deep intimacies I no longer know how to make with people, loving instead the saudade I know will always be there. Without saudade, newness would be unachievable, or at the least bland.
Tenho saudade de todos e de tudo que eu deixei para trás—I have saudade of everyone and everything that I have left behind.
When I went back to Rigby the year I turned thirty, my elementary school had been demolished. The middle school was a weed-filled pasture. The Stop n’Go where I would drink cappuccinos when my friends and I snuck out of church was more cluttered than I remembered. However, the town itself seemed cleaner, newer. It also seemed empty. I drove around and walked into stores hoping I would run into Dan Carter, Carlos Greenfield, Jon Hansen—those best, early-adolescent friends I had lost. But they weren’t there, so Rigby was no longer Rigby. It was the absence of Rigby. A tangible negative space.
I haven’t been back to Puerto Rico since the day I turned sixteen, but I imagine it would have the same effect as Rigby if I did. The island was changed after Hurricane Georges. We didn’t have running water for a couple weeks and no electricity for a month, and so many trees were blown down that the expressway, which was about a mile from our house, could be seen. The neighborhood kids and my brother and I would stay out all night in the dark after the storm talking about ghosts while drinking whatever could be stolen from parents’ home-bars. No one had electricity. We were together in that, and it was terrible and wonderful.
The solidarity of hurricanes is remarkable. It’s that shared anxiety in the stillness before the storm and the quiet pleading for something to move after, for some kind of breeze to push away the muggy air that gathers around the debris. It’s in the cleaning and rebuilding of damaged homes, the sharing of water and resources, generators and boxed milk. There will always be the phrase, “After the hurricane…” I imagine Puerto Rico has changed since, and even more after Maria. When I saw the news, I was reminded of post-hurricane life. I cried at the familiar images and recognized some of my favorite locations, trees I had skated under that had been uprooted and destroyed—I saw the familiar faces of worn people after a tempest, and, though impotent, my love went out to them. I wanted to be there, to help where I once had a home. I recognized that vacuity after disaster.
I went to school on an army base in Puerto Rico with people who were from all over the world: some from the island, Panama, Guam, Japan, New York, California, Germany. A person from multiple areas is never quite the same as another from multiple areas, but there are similarities, similar movements. There was no shared continuity, but we were somewhat united in moments as travelers in passing—at least I felt that way—perhaps sharing the same types of membranes that separated me from other people and places. We were all used to classmates being constantly moved and changed out. Some stayed on the island. Some of us were always awaiting our eventual next move. We expected friends to leave. We expected to leave ourselves, making vague promises to keep in touch.
I’ve spent years not speaking to old friends, though I loved them and often think of them. I’ll think of our adventures rolling around the island in a stained Volkswagen Beetle, listening to Bob Marley. Or one midnight where Brian and Rose and I started a fire next to an abandoned building on the beach and sat there talking until the cops chased us away. Or swimming in the rain at Mar Chiquita with my siblings and Evelyn and her family—the droplets bouncing up from the ocean to the sky. I’ll think of my people from all my places: Warp Tour in the northwest with Carlos and Dan; wandering through Floridian, suburban streets at night with E, our long conversations filling the silence around us; all my Palm Desert people with whom I shared the chaos of writing; Marília and Natália and Vovó and Titia, the sisters and grandmother and aunt I hardly ever knew yet knew so well. I think of my mother-in-law and sitting with Evandro strumming his guitar around a fire in front of their house under the expansive starry sky in the serra in Baturité. I think of when I used to live with Daniel and Sandra and Sarinha, who at five would ask me to play Tom Waits or David Bowie whenever I would drive her to school. It hurts to think about them, and I love that it hurts because it’s like that charcoal from my drawing. I can touch it and prove that I was there, that there was something that happened in that place and with those people. It’s the saudade that pushes the wandering I think. There is always saudade, so there is always a space that needs to be filled and there is always a place that hints that it might have the answer—a natural void requiring movement.
I battle inertia on a daily scale as well, sometimes through psychomotor agitation. I can’t sleep until I’ve twisted my body around the bed for a while. I can’t sit without shaking my leg. I work in movement—I like to see the words travel across the page. I like to feel the rhythm of speech and the tap of the keyboard. I work trying to put that drive somewhere, to shift that itinerance into something productive. But even when I work I pace—I pace around the class when teaching. I pace the living room or bookstore between paragraphs, muttering and waving my hands to myself. I’ll drive somewhere I don’t really need to go just to feel the movement, to hear the music so loud I can do nothing but sing along with all my saudades. Never quite being satisfied with where I am because I keep feeling the lack of where I’m not. There is always something else. There are always more people. There is never enough to fill the space of everything left behind.
The sensation of home is always in the next place, always in the space I haven’t yet discovered, but only during the moment in which the initial shock of the new locale drowns out the saudade—because when I feel that absence of, that vacuum, build up again I’ll know I’m winding up for another move, another shot at another adventure. Because that’s the way it goes. That’s the way it has to be.
Saudade is the force that moves the object at rest—the impossible physics of perpetual motion. That’s the sacrifice, without which the movement would be worthless, the newness empty. That’s the blood that has to be spilt, along with my own since it doesn’t work if I don’t love them. And the love has to be profound, even if not intimate. It doesn’t work if I don’t hurt. There has to be a duality, opposite forces to keep the engine going. It makes what I’m looking for impossible because it’s always behind me, and since I can’t go backward, can never connect, I have to rush forward with all I have. Saudade is the price to pay to satiate the addiction of constant mobility. I carry all saudade of all the places I’ve had and never had, and of all the people that were mine and never were mine, knowing it doesn’t matter who I’ve learned to leave or not, because at some point I’ll have to carry those absences too, at some point everything becomes saudade.
David Martinez is a half-American half-Brazilian writer who has lived all over the US, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside Palm Desert. David has conducted interviews for The Coachella Review and has had fiction published in Broken Pencil and Automata Review. His most recent essays can be found in the Writers Resist Anthology and Anti-Heroin Chic. David teaches English and Creative Writing at Glendale Community College in Arizona. You can find him at davidmmartinez.com.