Such was the force of her nature that Marlene had become the center of our family of eight siblings long before our parents passed away. When she didn’t make the decisions, she was always consulted and rarely contradicted, because you’d have to arrive at the table with arguments, and no one had more than she did. That made for some strained relationships, but such is family: some are loved, but not liked; others are liked, but not loved; then there is the misfortune are those who are neither loved nor liked; and there is also the great blessing of those who are both loved and liked. It is with great joy I say that Marlene Toledano was not only the latter for me, but she was one of the people who taught me the most in life. Her lectures on healthy food and nutrition, became my diet. Her quest for progress and not conservation is what shaped my vision of what America is—and isn’t—and it prepared me to look later at the country from the outside in, whereby her parallel opinions on geopolitics became mine as well. But more importantly, as I sit sadly in her apartment without her, I realize how her lectures on art and aesthetics shaped my taste forever. Hers is the most stunning apartment I have ever seen, because, like all true beauty, it is irreplicable: it is filled with the collection of art, culture, and knowledge from someone who cultivated beauty her whole life.
“You don’t know how to have a conversation; you just give lectures!” I would say, laughing in her face—executing my privilege as one of the few whose insolence was tolerated when responding to her unnecessary apology for rambling once again. I could lay on her sofa with wine for hours listening to her in what I called the Cultural Center, which was her living room and my favorite place in Chicago.
“I know, I’m intolerable,” she smirked. “But I have to take advantage of your visit because you are the only one who listens to me!”
And listen I did. But our streets weren’t always one-way. Not only were there the unending conversations over literature—the many novels I had indicated are staring at me from the bookshelves across the room—the library just opposite of the fiction section was dedicated to her own journey to the East, although slightly different than mine. Marlene had long since held Buddhism like a balancing pole to quiet the mind teetering with astuteness at such dizzying heights among gales of emotion, because even the blessing of great intelligence comes with disadvantages of equal measure. We shared the personal experiences of artists, tormented by perfectionism their whole life. We also shared a vision of death, and the importance of its contemplation, something she had been doing in a way I cannot imagine for the eight, healthy years she lived after being condemned to die within six months of her cancer diagnosis. None of that, however, is how I will remember Marlene Toledano.
It was on the special occasion of her last night in Rio de Janeiro, many years ago. We were smashed up against the bar of a famous samba venue when two warrior women, exaggerating their merriment, disrespected the personal space of the Queen. I saw it coming: Her Majesty was getting irritated and I trembled to think about what could ensue, having witnessed over my lifetime some examples of what my sister was capable of doing to dissidents.
What Marlene will never know is that the warrior women’s insolence was provoked by their own envy. They were getting no attention from the men staring at Marlene, dressed to the nines in a simple but uncommon elegance that was hers alone. Worse, she was, as always, completely oblivious to the what was going on around her, the men staring at her, especially while lecturing with the single caipirinha she would allow herself.
In perfect Portuguese use of the imperative and subjunctive, the Queen ordered the warrior women to the dance floor, if they wanted to dance, but not to push her again.
“Oui, Madame!” They responded insultingly in French, towering over my sister—which was not exactly a feat because she was no taller than my shoulders. Upon exiting, the warrior women took the opportunity to pour their caipirinhas on Marlene.
Try, that is.
The Queen saw it coming. She grabbed them by their wrists, flicking their own cocktails of lemon, sugar and cachaça in their faces and then added hers from the bar in one of my favorite fits of her rage. The warrior women were blinded. Their eyes burning, they couldn’t see Marlene with her hands on hips more than ready for battle. They ran to the restroom, screaming.
“Where was I?” Marlene asked, returning to her comparison of Brazil-US microeconomics as she dried a spot on her black dress with a napkin. More terrifying than her rage was the uncanny way it would vanish just as fast as it could flare up.
When a large and well-dressed man darted across the room to reach us, I thought we were about to get bounced out. To my surprise, the handsome, older gentleman burst with laughter: “I saw that! That was amazing!”
We chatted. He was enthralled by our stories as Americans in Rio, who conversed easily in Portuguese. Upon discovering that Marlene’s great passion was dance—and that she had been studying samba-de-gafieira, the old, elegant form of the dance to the music she loved so much— the gentleman asked me with old-fashioned manners for the hand of my sister for a whirl.
Marlene, who had always loved or hated ideas, and whose emotions in doing so were worn like jewelry, was beyond delighted. That is when I saw what my sister had been up to for the extra month she decided to stay, when she was supposed to have stayed only three weeks.
It had been a month earlier when Marlene slammed the door open and then behind her as she arrived home in all of her drama, bracing herself with her hand on her chest in her characteristic ecstasy: “That’s it! I’m staying! I’m studying samba-de-gafieira three days a week for a month!”
“Wait. Marlene. I have to go there and negotiate the package then…”
“No. You won’t. It is already paid for.”
I wouldn’t have dared break the silence that followed her as she walked past me. I swallowed the arguments that I never presented, which included the fact that the price of the one-off class I had arranged with Brazil’s finest was probably more than my rent if multiplied by twelve. But it was not open for discussion.
What was open for discussion was the scene that happened a month later, just after Marlene had thwarted a revolt and was invited to dance. Within a few moments, it was as if the waters started parting, because everyone gave room to see the couple dancing. Soon, one of Rio’s most famous samba houses was breathless, watching my sister led by an ol’ fox in the intricate footwork of rhythmic tango that is the old samba from the old houses of its native Rio de Janeiro.
The warrior women emerged from the bathroom, dropped their jaws when they saw the show, and then they fled immediately in a retreat, as only they could.
And that was my sister, my friend, and my teacher, Marlene Toledano, who never did anything halfway. She mastered it, doing her best, or didn’t even bother.
Thank you, Marlene. Thank you for everything!