Time is short and the water is rising.
This is what one of Sofia Salvador's directors—I can't recall his name—used to shout before he'd start filming. Each time he said it, I imagined all of us in a fishbowl, our hands sliding frantically along the glass sides as water crept above our necks, our noses, our eyes.
I fall asleep listening to our old records and wake with my mouth dry, my tongue as rough as a cat's. I pull the handle of my La-Z-Boy and, with a jolt, am sitting upright. A pile of photos rests in my lap.
I own the most famous photograph of Sofia Salvador—the Brazilian Bombshell, the Fruity Cutie Girl, the fast-talking, eye-popping nymph with her glittering costumes and pixie-cut hair who, depending on your age and nationality, is a joke, an icon of camp, a victim, a traitor, a great innovator, or even, as one researcher anointed her, "an object of serious study of Hollywood's Latinas." (Is that what they're calling us now?) I bought the original photo and its negative at auction, paying much more than they were worth. Money isn't an issue for me these days; I'm filthy rich and not ashamed to say so. When I was young, musicians had to pretend that success and money didn't matter. Ambition, in a sambista and especially in a woman, was seen as an unforgivable fault.
In the photo, taken in 1942, Sofia Salvador wears the pixie cut she made famous. Her eyes are wide. Her lips are parted. Her tongue flicks the roof of her mouth; it is unclear if she is singing or screaming. Earrings made to resemble life-sized hummingbirds—their jeweled eyes glinting, their golden beaks sharp—dangle from her ears. She was vain about her lobes, worried they would sag under the weight of her array of earrings, each pair more fantastical than the
next. She was vain about everything, really; she had to be.
In the photograph she wears a gold choker, wrapped twice around her neck. Below it is strand upon strand of fake pearls, each one as large as an eyeball. Then there are the bracelets—bands of coral and gold—taking up most of her forearms. At the end of each day, when I'd take those necklaces and bracelets off her and she stopped being Sofia Salvador (for a moment, at least), Graça flapped her arms and said, "I feel so light. I could fly away!"
Graça drew Sofia's dark eyebrows arched so high she always looked surprised. The mouth—that famous red mouth—was what took her the longest to produce. She lined beyond her lips so that, like everything else, they were an exaggeration of the real thing. Who was the real thing? By the end of her short life, even Graça had trouble answering this question.
The picture was taken for Life
magazine. The photographer stood Graça against a white backdrop. "Pretend you're singing," he ordered.
"Why pretend?" Graça replied.
"I thought that's all you knew how to do," the photographer shot back. He believed his fame gave him the right to be nasty.
Graça stared. She was very tired. We always were, even me, who signed Sofia Salvador's name to hundreds of glossy photos while Graça and the Blue Moon boys endured eighteen-hour days of filming, costume fittings, screen tests, dance rehearsals, and publicity shoots for whatever her latest movie musical was. It could have been worse; we could have been starving like in the old days. But at least in the old days we played real music, together.
"Then I will pretend to respect you," Graça said to that fool photographer. Then she opened her mouth and sang. People remember the haircut, the enormous earrings, the sequined skirts, the accent, but they forget her voice. When she sang for that photographer, his camera nearly fell from his hands.
I listen to her records—only our early recordings, when she sang Vinicius's and my songs—and it is as if she is still seventeen and sitting beside me. Graça, with all of her willfulness, her humor, her petty resistances, her pluck, her complete selfishness. This is how I want her, if only for the span of a three-minute song.
When the song ends, I'm exhausted and whimpering. I imagine her here, nudging me, bringing me back to my senses.
'Why the hell are you upset, Dor?' Graça chides. 'At least you're still around.'
Her voice is so clear, I have to remind myself she isn't real. I have known Graça longer in my imagination than in real life.
'Who wants real life?' Graça asks, laughing at me. (She is always laughing at someone.)
I shake my head. After all this time—ninety-five years, to be exact—I still do not know the answer.