Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mamãe (continued)

On the train ride home tia Nastácia asked me questions about my day while the train clawed against the rails. I wouldn’t answer them. I closed my eyes to hush the noise. Sometimes, it seems, we hear with our eyes. The last thing my tia said on the train was, “Your haircut looks lovely, Roberta. You look older somehow.” At the sound of those words my neck turned cold. It was a cold that buzzed beneath the skin slowly, draining my throat dry. My neck, no longer covered with hair, was a naked and exposed thing that dipped forward like a small bird.

When we returned home, the house was quiet and still. I made my way to the kitchen and grabbed a whole carrot from the vegetable drawer. I didn’t bother to peel it or wash it and sat on the counter eating my carrot whole. I hadn’t done this since I was a child. My tia’s kitchen had no doors and was connected to the living room, where tia Nastácia sat reading, barely moving aside from her hands that fingered the pages. She grabbed the pages as she usually did: far before needing to turn the page, sliding it between her thumb and index finger until it sounded like rubber. There is something unsettling, but also amusing, about biting loudly into a carrot in a quiet room that has company. It’s the guttural sound that breaks through the silence, and reminds you of the silence. You know the other can hear it and could say something about it, but no one does, and no one did.

I took a very hot shower that night. I stood under the water, motionless, my arms hanging down my sides, letting the water to pour carelessly over my face and down my body. That day I hated America and I hated myself for it. I liked to cry after my showers when I was living with tia Nastácia. I would sit on the cold tiles, feeling my body turn hot to cold, watching the steam that had fogged up the bathroom clear. My head would balance heavily on my neck as my body pressure rose. My mouth coiled rose-like, rippling with quick breaths, and I’d start to cry.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mamãe (continued)

Her office was directly behind the patient room she was to go in. I noticed a closed door that linked the two rooms. At the top of the door there was a rectangular window, just about big enough to get a good look into the other room, I thought. I grabbed a chair and stood on top of it so that my chin rested on the windowsill.

Tia Nastácia was holding a newborn baby by its armpits. She was getting ready to weigh it. Its legs were bent up and it looked like a startled chicken – just as tia Natácia had told me. Its mouth was gaping-black open but it wouldn’t cry. The baby’s mother sat in the corner watching. She was an Indian woman who wore a tight bun and had large, depthless eyes. She sat still in her deep-red garb that encased her like a tulip. Her lips were quivering because she loved and longed for her baby. The baby’s skin was still folded and I wanted to touch it. It looked soft and small to hold. Tia Nastácia wasn’t even looking at the baby and suddenly it started to shriek. The baby didn’t like her and I could have hated her.

My attention shifted to the ghost-like reflection of my face in the glass. I didn’t usually like to look at myself too much but that day I wanted to convince myself that I looked younger, even childlike. Most people get haircuts to get a new face but I was searching for an old one. When I was younger I wore my hair short with many bobby pins. Especially when I did ballet, to keep all my hair back from my face. The pins dug into my scalp until I got headaches. One day I came home and restlessly took them all out, crying and letting them fall to the ground in piles. I shed my little black bones and decided that I would stop dancing.

I couldn’t find my old face. Instead I saw a watery one that sometimes disappeared with the reflecting sunlight that stroke the glass.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mamãe (continued)

I went straight to tia Nastácia’s work after my cut. She had told me I could. We would go to get something to eat and head home together. It was the first time that I would visit her at work and I had been looking forward to it. The façade of the building was a bare beige. I made my way to the second floor where the pediatric center was. From the elevator I could hear crying. The waiting room was colorless and the walls were slightly peeling. It didn’t have any toys, only plastic blue chairs scattered illogically. It was full of mothers and babies. You could tell that they weren’t waiting for your general check up. The babies were unwell and you could see it in the sickliness of their mothers’ eyes. Tia Nastácia worked with underprivileged families that couldn’t afford private hospitals and insurance. It had always been this way since my tia was in her twenties or so. She moved from city to city, trying to make weak children stronger.

“Hi – um – I’m Roberta, Natácia’s niece?” I told the woman at the front desk. She was a big-boned woman with greasy dark-blonde hair that hung stiffly from her skull.


“Her niece. She told me I could come visit her around now.”

“Visit? Honey, this ain’t no place for entertainment. I suggest you go home now.” I wanted to squeeze the nasal voice right out of her throat with my own two hands but instead I went straight for the door that let me into the patient area.

Hey. Hey now girl you get back here! That ain’t right, I say!”

I walked hurriedly down the hallway past the door, looking straight ahead of me and half-forgetting why I was there in the first place. Tia Nastácia saw me pass from one of the patient rooms and followed after me.

“Roberta? Roberta, what are you doing here? You can’t just barge in here like this.” Her voice was tight and almost loud.

You said I could come here. You did. Remember?” My cheeks were swelling and reddening and my body was burning.

“Yes, Roberta, I do. But you can’t just walk in here like this. This is a hospital, don’t you understand?” Her arms were crossed now and she looked at me with wide eyes. There was too much white in her eyes and it was frightening. I could have hated her.

“Natácia, there’s a patient in room six waiting,” a nurse called from the background.

“Roberta, I have – ”

Alright! Alright, I get it!” My eyes started to water uncontrollably and I was embarrassed. “You didn’t even say anything about my hair…” I turned my face over my shoulder towards a dirty window. It looked out to a dead plant in a square courtyard.

“Oh, Roberta, I’m sorry but I have important things to do now. Why don’t you wait in my office while I finish with my last patient.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mamãe (continued)

Later that day, when I got my haircut, I wondered if Jesse would like it. As I waited to get my cut, one of the employees was brushing and grooming a wig in front of me. The wig sat on a mannequin head that floated from a long metal pole. Its plastic blue eyes seemed to pop open from the force of the pole as they blankly met my stare. The wig was being made for a young Hassidic woman, who vigilantly stood by. She was protective of her head of hair, correcting the employee when one curl wasn’t as pronounced as another. It was a spectacle I was entirely unfamiliar with. I shamelessly stared at the young woman’s covered head, wondering what her real hair looked like. Was she as protective of and careful with her own hair? I fantasized what her hair might have looked like if she let it show. I guessed it thick and curly and dark. I wondered if she had two lives and if she felt different depending on which head of hair she wore. Meanwhile the employee was shaping the hair with her fingers with a pride and tenderness characteristic of a mother grooming her child.

Mamãe used to brush my hair as a child, by her bedroom window. I would sit and she would stand. My hair would still be thick and wet from the shower. “You never dry your hair properly.” She would tell me, in a habitual way. She’d then run the brush, slowly, down my hair so that every knot’s struggle was heard in a low rumble. With each stroke my scalp cooled and the smell of lavender shampoo opened. One day I told mamãe “I don’t want you to brush my hair anymore.” I said it in calculated and calm words, which I had repeatedly rehearsed. She set the brush aside and stared, dumbfounded, at my gleaming, straight strands, divided neatly by the pins of the brush.

A young man by the name of Tommy cut my hair off that day. We didn’t talk much and he probably thought I was boring just like all the other hairdressers did. I never understood what girls did that got hairdressers talking. Most of the time I thought of what to say until I got sleepy from the hairdryer and then eventually I’d give up.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mamãe (continued)


I met Jesse the day I cut my hair. I went to a school of dark red brick walls that had a small square yard patched with black gravel. In case of rain there was a corner with a moldy wooden table that was protected by a tin roof. I was sitting at this table, eating a dry ham sandwich, when Jesse came over to flirt with me.

“It’s nice that you’re not afraid to eat alone.”

“I’m not sure if I would use the word ‘nice’.” I realized I must have come off as rather rude but he didn’t seem to mind.

“Do you mind if I sit with you?”

“No, no. Not at all.”

He took out something wrapped in tin foil from his backpack and pealed it back with slow care. It was a piece of neon green cake.

“That’s an interesting color for cake.”

“It’s real good. My sister made it. Do you want some?” He broke a fluffy green end off and propped it on my palm.

“So where’re you from anyway?” He took big bites as he spoke. I wondered if he had asked the question because of my accent or if he knew that I was the new foreign kid.

“Brasília.” His lack of a reaction made me realize he was too shy to say he didn’t know what or where Brasília was. “It’s the capital of Brazil.” Many of the people I went to school with had no concept of where I came from. Sometimes I wanted to make it up.

He smiled and laughed a bit. “More interesting than Wisconsin. I’m Jesse, by the way.” He reached out his hand to shake my own. I shook his hand, entirely baffled by the fact that a fourteen-year-old boy shook hands upon acquaintance like an old businessman would. It was only until later that I realized that shaking hands was the acceptable way of getting to know someone.

“Roberta.” I hated the way my name sounded in English. Those curly, aggressive ‘R’s’…

“Nice name.” Jesse took his last bite of cake just as I started to eat mine. I pictured those large soft chews of green growing in our stomachs.

Just then a group of cheering boys sounded from the opposite side of the black gravel square.

“Oh, right. I heard about this.” Jesse said while glancing over the scene.

“What? What is it?” Five girls from my freshman class had been summoned over by the boys. The girls were flushing and giggling while playing with their ankles and turning heads to see who was watching them.

“Each year the senior boys pick the five most attractive girls from the freshman class. Then they number them from least attractive to most attractive.”


“Did you just say oh or ew?”


Jesse laughed at me. “Well I don’t particularly agree with their selection anyway.”

I was about to say something about how they were almost all blonde and blue-eyed when a very short girl walked up to Jesse.

“This shit’s gross.” She crumpled her nose into her forehead and motioned towards the scene we had been watching. She then turned towards me and outstretched her arm in one, firm movement and gave me a tight handshake. I still hadn’t gotten used to the whole handshake thing and I was a bit embarrassed when I realized how limp my own handshake must have seemed.

“Dana.” She said. Her voice was deep and lulling.


She introduced herself in a casual manner that made it seem as if my presence were only too natural. Around Dana, I rarely felt like the new girl, except when Jesse cared to remind her.

“Roberta’s from Brazil.” Jesse said to Dana, excited about his newfound piece of information.

“Oh yeah? That’s cool.” Dana took a seat and propped her two elbows on the table, cupping her chin by her hands. Her movements were sharp and quick and so was her stare. “What’s it like there? So being in America must be pretty weird then, huh? Do you who know Britney Spears and P. Diddy are and shit?”

This was the sort of question that really irritated me. Did the Americans not know that their culture had basically infiltrated everyone else’s? Instead I just answered with a simple “Yeah, I do.”

By this point the five girls had been ranked into their proper places and the boys’ cheers had escalated into roars.

“Fuck Liz Danes. She’s stupid and not even pretty,” Dana snorted. I guessed Liz was the number one.

“You two were kind of friendly at one point,” Jesse said.

“No we weren’t. Anyway, I have to go. It was nice meeting you, Rob. I’ll see you after school Jesse.” She left as fast as she came and all I kept thinking about was how nobody had ever called me Rob before.

“That’s Dana for you. We’ve been best friends since kids and all,” Jesse explained.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mamãe (continued)


It began when I was on the plane leaving Brazil. My boobs kept shaking from the turbulence and a little girl was sitting next to me. I don’t deal well with turbulence so I decided to distract myself by talking to the girl. I asked her how old she was but she wouldn’t answer.

“You’re six, right Gabi?” Her mother took pity on me and intervened.

“No. I’m six and three quarters.”

“When’s your birthday?” I asked.

“December 8th.”

“Really? That was my dog’s birthday. She was a beagle. She died a few years ago, though.”

“So I was born on a dead dog’s birthday.”

I was born on a dead dog’s birthday. I was astonished by the cruel frankness of this brat of a six and three quarter year-old child. It made me sad to think of mean children. Mamãe used to say children were sadistic. I used to think she was cynical for saying it until I met Gabi.

On the plane, I closed my eyes to remember Daniel. I knew that my little cousin Daniel would become a fine young man. I thought of our times together and how I would sit with him coloring as he told stories about giant eggs and dinosaurs. He’d tell them animatedly, the wailing wind inhabiting him as he spoke. As I thought of Daniel I started to feel cold. I wished that I hadn’t left. I didn’t care about a so-called higher education. I had never asked for it. What made them think that I wanted it? I wanted home and its smells – my tias’ impossibly sweet perfumes, Daniel’s heated crayons, the burnt cheese and leftover milk from breakfast. I imagined what my room at home must have looked like just then. I wondered if anyone had gone inside it since I’d left. The closed thing I lived in had been opened, pealed back, and emptied. The walls were left looking too large and muscular, and the room smelled of dust and bitter plastic from the masking tape. My parents would fill in the spaces with other objects and a new life would take the place of my own. Gabi began to slap her pencil against her tray, probably to wake me because she thought I was sleeping. I couldn’t open my eyes anyway. My whole body was so cold that I had to keep it all shut up. But it didn’t matter because the cold had already started to grow inside me. The veins on my hands were planting purple trees and soon they would sprout ice.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mamãe (continued)

Later that night while tia Nastácia brushed her teeth, I pretended to be her child. I sat on her bed, or rather our bed, swinging my legs back and forth. At the time I had been living with her, and sharing a bed. I didn’t mind it too much except for the fact that she was a motionless sleeper. She slept on her back and sometimes I thought she was dead but then I’d watch her egg-like stomach inhale and exhale until it made me sleepy again. Tia Nastácia did various bathroom rituals before bed. Once I walked in and she was washing her clothes in the tub. I learned that she had the habit of taking all the clothes that needed to be hand washed into the bathroom with her when she showered. She figured, since she was already wet, that she might as well sit in the tub after the fact and wash her clothes. All I could do was stare at her I was so surprised and nervous. She was naked, her short hair was all wet and pointy, and her thighs were dripping soap. She wasn’t surprised at all.

That night, while tia Nastácia was brushing her teeth, I realized that it had been one month exactly since I had moved in. By this point my days had lost any shape. They were flat things that I could no longer hold or feel or understand. I felt only the weight of my own body: dense and too full with organs. Sometimes I told myself that if tia Nastácia were a mother, things would have been better. She didn’t have to be my mother necessarily, I thought. Just a mother.

That night I tried to write a letter to Sara, my best friend in Brasília. But my hands kept getting too cold. I couldn’t feel my fingers and I couldn’t hold my pen properly. I had wanted my tia to walk in the bedroom and see me swinging my legs like a little girl but I went to the kitchen instead. I put the kettle on to make some tea. As I waited, I ran my hands under piping hot water until it made my hands flush. I took a teacup from the drying rack and leaned against the kitchen sink like tia Nastácia would. Maybe, I thought, I would see whatever it was that she saw. She always seemed so at peace, so puzzlingly still. My fingers were sweating from the water. I stared at the kitchen walls but I couldn’t find anything. And then the thought came to me: I was not inside something bound or kept. Everything was loosening, falling apart into its separate bits, into its furniture and walls and shapes. The water started to gurgle in the kettle, and I let it get louder and louder. My stomach started to bend, like the cold, curving white of the cup I held. I dropped the cup and its breaking sounded like crying.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mamãe (continued)

In Brazil, on Sunday mornings, we had elaborate breakfasts at tio Rafa’s house. Mamãe and I would fix a platter with fresh fruits such as papaya, cajú and mango. There would be at least twenty of us at my tio’s house. Loud conversations rattled and toppled over each other at the breakfast table. Milky tapiocas abounded. They had a pasty taste and we’d leave them soaking up in our mouths. There’d always be someone going in or out of the kitchen, which, whenever its door opened, would allow in the bitter smell of fried cheese. By this point our bellies felt heavy and lumpy, and would only remind us that we were so full that we had to eat more. We’d continue eating and talking. Eating talk until nightfall.

“I want to get a haircut.” I told my tia as she served herself.

“Alright. You’ll like my hairdresser. He’s entertaining to talk to and he knows what he’s doing. Do you want me to schedule it or give you the number?”

“Could you schedule it? I want it short. Really short.”

“Really short?”

My hair was a long and stiff dark wood. I wore it down most of the time.

“Short. Like a bob.”

Tia Nastásia observed me.

“That should look nice on you, Roberta. You have a good shape for a face.”

Tia Nastásia appreciated shapes. Her clothing was always patterned, usually of flora or geometrical patterns, much like the furniture in her house. Objects were arranged at oblique angles like an impossible puzzle piece. Nothing seemed to fit together because each thing retained its own shape so stubbornly. Especially that table, the thin and long black one that sliced my fingers once when I touched one of its corners. I cried. I told tia Nastásia that it would turn my blood black and that her house was making me sick. I remember she was wearing a long beige dress and her eyes were tired. She stared at me for a good while without saying anything until finally she said “I’m sorry.”

Tia Nastásia had worked at pediatric centers all over the world, collecting objects from each place she lived in. She especially loved her curtains, which she had bought in Portugal. They were heavy and opaque with grainy maroon roses sparsely sewed into them. In the winter she kept them closed. She said she felt warm and encased behind them.

I hated those curtains. I felt suffocated by their dark roses. I missed real flowers and sunshine. The light in Chicago was white. It was an unattractive light that clung to people’s faces. Sometimes it screamed but most of the time it was quiet and dead.

At home, at my parent’s house, the kitchen sink faced a wide window that looked out to a backyard of buganvilias. I liked to stand there on sunny mornings, as most days had been. I liked how the sunlight burned my skin and how it made that spot in the kitchen smell slightly thicker because of the heat. Sometimes the flowers were so pink and ripe that I thought I could smell the sugar off of them.

Tia Nastásia was different from the rest of the family. She had been the only one, until me, to leave Brazil. She was pale and had large, pointy cheekbones. Her eyebrows were dark and severe and her lips were long. She had everything for a strong face, except for those eyes. Those thin, gray eyes that appeared washed over.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mamãe (excerpt from the beginning)

Tia Nastásia’s hair would go sshhh. It was pale gray and thin and it told me to stay quiet. It moved, though discretely and you only really noticed it when she wasn’t doing very much. I can imagine her leaning her back against the sink after cleaning the dishes, her body still and her gray hairs breathing like grass.

I had told tia Nastásia one day that the colors were changing and I missed the old ones. She told me that there was no such thing as old. But she was old. And I remember that on that day the blood under her eyes matched the pink of her scarf.

It was getting cold. At night I stuck my head under the sheets so that my breath would keep me warm. I missed Brazil and I didn’t like the new colors. I told tia Nastásia that this winter would poison me. I would turn into glass and soon I would be smooth and cold and if you touched me you’d bleed. Tia Nastásia replied by telling me that she had weighed another baby that day. My tia was a pediatrician. She weighed babies on metal scales like chicken breasts. The baby had cried until it no longer had any eyes. They had stuck inside its flushed face like buds that couldn’t flower. The scale was cold and the baby was naked.

That day while tia Nastásia cooked lunch, I lied on her couch and closed my eyes. I didn’t fall sleep and because of it I could tell when my eyes were getting closer to myself and then slowly farther. Most of the time they were farther because I was thinking too much.

“How was school today?” My tia had asked. I opened my eyes to the inordinate convex swell of her back as she sliced bananas at the kitchen counter. I told her that this boy Brett had left a few bras sticking out of his locker as a joke. She found it funny. Tia Nastásia had a sense of humor and I trusted her as a person because of it. She then asked me if I had been keeping in touch with my friends in Brasilia. I told her that I had. But I had been writing letters to people without sending them. They were kept in a journal and really they were letters to myself.

Tia Nastásia had made rice and beans, spinach, meat and farofa. She placed the cut bananas in a small clay bowl because she knew that I liked to mix bananas in with my rice and beans. Ever since I had moved, I got into the habit of putting bananas in my cereal. I had been eating cereal every morning, like the Americans did. I was addicted to the tasty American milk and I liked how sugary it got from the cereal flakes.