Times were different when I was a young man. My generation had different expectations of life than our parents and a few of us were different in outlook as well. I had graduated university as a structural engineer and needed, I thought, to make my mark on the world. Now I could have joined a large engineering firm and become lost in the crowd, but I figured that if I could do some work overseas I could become a standout from that crowd. True, I was young and egotistical and full of confidence that I could engineer the world to perfection, but a young man has to have ambition or else settle for a tract house in the suburbs and collect the usual accouterments of wife, children (two mind you, one a girl and the other a boy), the family station wagon (oh dear, I reveal my age), and the hot little sports car that says “I have arrived.” All very well for the middle class minded, but too plebeian for my blood. Being unconventional according to the crowd and not wanting to be chained to an oar in the trireme of society I saw my future differently, the need to excel on my terms. Besides, being an engineer was a craft, an ends to the means, as one might say. I fancied myself a possible artist, a painter in oils creating great works of art. Well, one must have a dream in any case.
So I did contract work and gained the experience would place me in good standing with the rest of the structural engineers of the world. Oh the assignments were varied, the design of small bridges here and there in third world countries, some teamwork on a couple of dams, and the ever present facilities engineering for docks and other logistical facilities. One learns by doing, the essential attitude of the engineer. Of course my social life wasn’t much. Many of the countries in which I worked I could not speak the language and for the most part I was too busy to bother with social expectations. A wife would be an encumbrance and girlfriends take up too much time and resources. So I stayed single and and forgot about companionship. At best it was an interference and at worst it was a total distraction. Besides, I still dabbled in art by creating drawings and a few watercolors (oils are messy to lug from job to job). Not quite the bohemian life but a bit off the mark of a conventional one.
Fate, be it what you will and question its existence, it is the one human activity that cannot be engineered. I don’t understand it but I don’t distrust it either. As the lyrics go: “So close your eyes, for that’s a lovely way to see”, South America was one of those last bastions of contract engineers in the seventies. Brasilia was the new capital of Brasil and was being carve out of the jungle, literally. Of course the Bossa Nova and other jazz forms were commanding world wide attention. Rio was the place to be if one moved in musical circles but rather far from the interior and only accessible by plane. On the other hand Brasilia was attracting population when none had been before. and those various components of the new city society brought their different cultures with them, music was one of the many. It was a most exhilarating time in my life, the girl from Ipanema was in her mid twenties by now and that form of Brazilian Jazz had taken new directions. It was exciting times if one were in the social scene, but too many cost overruns, too many botched plans, time was of the essence and you can’t build cities sitting in sidewalk cafes, so you let the social scene slide.
Aware of things your heart alone was meant to see. Even Brazil extracted the need for socialization among us contractors. It is the rhythm of the work and the social life that makes the difference. By the seventies the danger of revolutionary groups had disappeared and we could get on with the work that would make Brazil one of the economic successes of the world. I was making a reputation for excellence of work and swift completion or he work. Still, there was something missing, something of a most civilizing nature. Man does not live by bread alone and there is usually a companion in the makings that marks the difference. Work associates are good to have but they are rarely ever good personal friends, you know, the kind you grew up with from childhood into manhood. Looking back over my journals I see that I had been merely existing for the last few years. Even my attempts at art screamed loneliness. Funny thing about art, either it’s your mistress, your one true love, or it’s another faithless lover. You can’t flirt with it and expect to be taken seriously by it.
I was between contracts and had a great deal of money saved for an extended holiday so I took a small villa in Bahia three months, I figured I owed myself a long break, time to decide where I wanted my life to be in the coming years. Over two years of working in Brasilia served to teach me the rudiments of the Portuguese language and I figured three months in Bahia would give it that polish that only comes from immersion. The villa was a modest affair, two bedrooms, a large bath, a modest kitchen, and an open living room. The beach was an easy mile’s walk while the shopping and business area was two miles to the north. Music was a constant companion in the streets and life in the neighborhood was friendly, easy going for the most part, it could beguile a man into settling, put down roots. Astrud was sitting on the beach when I chanced to meet her the second week of my stay. She ignored my initial greetings but by the end of the week she chose to return the salutations with that quiet smile that could flash into a flirting grin in the blink of my eyes. Ah, to be twenty something and youthful again. I’m afraid I looked all of my thirty two years while she seemed to be barely twenty. Blond, of medium height, and on the thin side, this pretty woman surely had no lack of suitors. Like most men I felt awkward around beautiful women and she was beautiful. I’m afraid I do not have to power of the poet in me to render a great portrait of words to capture her beauty, Byron might but not me. No, I’m an engineer and could take slide rule and pencil and render her on a blueprint like a beautifully designed bridge or modern high rise apartment tower. But Bahia has that strange power over life, it starts to change you in many significant ways, hear the moon and stars singing as the night sky grows dark and the birds talk of love. Local legend says that if one stays long enough in Bahia one can feel the rhythms of love intertwine one’s heart and bind it to the city.
By the end of the month Astrud had taken a passing interest in my presence and guided me in conversation with a loving patience. I felt my confidence gaining in speaking Portuguese and I was more comfortable speaking with her. We would talk about some of the clubs I found where local performers put on good shows. Funny thing was that I was beginning to feel my feet move to those local rhythms and she laughed when I confessed such a thought to her. Slowly the distance between us closed and I could almost feel her spirit beside me. Finally she asked me to meet her at her favorite club that night and I was thrilled. My only regret was that I would be leaving in another month and I would miss seeing her every day. But we could dance and hold each other close under the moon and stars. You can’t deny the stars, don’t try to fight the rising sea. Don’t fight the moon, the stars above, and don’t fight me. There was a dream growing in my heart. I saw there were more stars in the night sky to count and wished to cont them with her. Most of all I was starting to see with the artist’s eye that natural love of beauty. Perhaps I was only fooling myself.
The end of the month was nigh, the time to pack was only a day or two away. Yet when I looked into her eyes I saw eternity. Yes, I know, how corny. Walking back from the club in the early morning with our arms swinging in an easy motion as her hand squeezed mine, she stopped and looked into my face. “Just catch the wave. Don’t be afraid of loving me. The fundamental loneliness goes whenever two can dream a dream together.” I knew she was right, things would work out. I knew they would, I would let go.