The snowflakes melted into my hair, making it frizz up into snarls of black curls as I stared at the door to my parents’s basement apartment. The coins in my hand grew cold so I closed my fingers over them. I needed the money for the bus ride back to school. I glanced back at the bus stop down the street. The hot pink graffiti on the sign made it glow in the sea of white snow.
The air in front of me fogged up as I exhaled. It was so cold today that I could feel my nose hairs stiffen and turn into tiny icicles. Definitely below fifteen degrees then. My numb fingers fumbled with the keys, full of eagerness for what lay inside.
As I opened the door, warmth covered my face, moving past my coat and pants to touch my skin. I stood there, feeling the heat on my face, cold on my back. Mae looked up and waved me forward, her arms moving in large and wild gestures. Her lips opened in distorted shapes, too rapid for me to understand. I stood at the doorway, confused, before I caught two words: close door. With unsteady, almost frostbitten hands, I closed the door behind me.
I wondered if I had gotten worse at lip-reading as Mae held me in her arms. Her hard arms and pointy shoulders enveloped me in a different kind of warmth, one that came from inside. I hadn’t had a hug like that in months. I let myself sink into it, forgetting the cold that had penetrated my boots and coat. Two more arms encircled me and grasped me. For a moment, I was held between two warmths: Mae’s and Pai’s.
As Pai gave me a proper hug, his chest rumbled against my cheek. I realized that he was talking. Sometimes he forgot that I couldn’t hear him and just talked to me as if I could. Before I could tell him, his head turned and he released me, walking to the phone.
I looked at Mae and signed, “Who’s calling?”
Mae’s brown eyes studied my flying fingers. When her brows stayed furrowed, creating a crevasse in between them, I tried again. The confusion remained in her eyes. Finally, I just flipped my thumb and pinky open and mimicked holding a phone, hating feeling like a mime in a park. Her dark eyes sharpened in understanding and she smiled.
Her forehead creased again as she tried to shove her fingers into e’s and t‘s. She hadn’t been practicing. I was ready to raise my hands to scold her. To tell her that she needed practice or she’d forget it all when I was away.
The sight of her puffy, cracked fingers made me close my eyes. She’d been taking more babysitting and cleaning job where she plunged her hands into piping-hot water and scrubbed grease-covered pans as Pai sat in the university lab, his visa warm in his pocket. I left my hands fall away and let her complete her halting fingerspelling of “Roberto” even though I had known who she meant by the time she got to b.
My hands moved to my forehead so I could sign why, but she wouldn’t understand. I shrugged and mouthed the word, “Why?” This act, this shaping of my mouth felt strange, alien. The girls and boys at school said that it made me look silly. That only moving my hands made me look better.
She tried to force her fingers into place. Her fingers kept slipping, making any attempt at clarity incomprehensible. I swept my hand through the air as my mouth shaped the words, “Never mind,” I said.
I tried not to notice when she looked relieved.
As Mae drifted away and Pai fiddled with a big black electronic thing full of switches and wires. The speakers told me it was a stereo, a big one. A smile crept up on me as I looked around. I could feel the Carnaval already. The bold reds, yellows, blues and purples swallowed up the pale beige of the walls. The swirls of colors, life and vivacity even made me forget the mustard yellows and dirt browns of the shag carpet and the faux wood linoleum that filled the apartment. The aroma of melted cheese and tapioca flour of pão de queijo filled the air, mixing into the salty, savory smell of feijoada. They weren’t typical Carnaval fare, but we didn’t have deep fryers and cotton candy makers lining the basement. I hoped that I could get the pão de queijo when they came out of the oven. Once it cooled, the tapioca hardened into an unpleasant mealiness. I closed my eyes and remembered the flavors that I hadn’t tasted in so long.
The word Carnaval was as exciting and delicious as birthdays and Christmases. It was the time when colors came out of hibernation and made us forget about the snow and cold that turned the landscape into desolate white dunes. It was the time when ice that had settled into our bones melted away, replaced by the heat of bodies dancing, dancing, and dancing some more. It must not be that way in Brazil. Carnaval happened in the summer there. But it seemed perfect here.
When I looked Carnaval up in an encyclopedia and the big, thick book said: the Brazilian Carnival (Portuguese: Carnaval) is an annual celebration in Brazil held forty-six days before Easter, just before Lent. During Lent, Roman Catholics, which comprise the majority of the population, are to abstain from bodily pleasures to honor Jesus”s forty days of wandering in the desert.The carnival, which is celebrated as a profane event, can be considered an act of farewell to the pleasures of the flesh.
I had stared at that passage for several moments. These words held no hint of Carnaval’s life, vivacity, or spirit. To me, Carnaval marked the slow comings of spring, not a sad goodbye to pleasure. It was a celebration of joy, not of impending penance.
Mae’s and Pai’s mouths were open in the shape of “Não! Não!” as their fingers pulled at the half-pinned feathers. The feathers’ polyester fringes shook in Mae’s hands as she glared at Pai. His lips moved, but I couldn’t see what he said, as he grabbed Mae’s hand. After one of Pai’s crooked smiles, Mae was smiling as well. For the briefest moment, I wished I knew more Portuguese. I only knew a few words, since all of the teachers had told my parents that English and sign language were hard enough. To add Portuguese on that load would be too much for me. Still, I would have liked to have a chance at lip-reading what Pai said to Mae to make her smile so.
Mae’s hips were swaying like a gently swinging pendulum as she returned to smoothing the red tablecloths and adjusting the purple feathers. I watched these hips, transfixed by the rhythm, then I realized that it wasn’t just her. There was music playing so low that I couldn’t feel it.
Grabbing a handful of emerald green and teal cloths, Mae sashayed her way down the hallway, her hips keeping time with the unfelt music. Pai was still staring at the instruction manual for a new stereo that they’d saved up just for the Carnaval, so I followed Mae.
She slipped behind a pastel-green sewing machine, pins in her mouth and a mountain of colors under her hand. For the briefest moment, I thought she was in a painting. A rich royal blue cloth was draped over her shoulders and a teal green cloth was bunched up under her hand. Red feathers stuck out of her bun. These colors framed her face, making the pinks in her cheeks pinker and her brown hair darker. It was a beautiful painting that should’ve been hanging in a museum.
I sat down, keeping my eyes on her. I didn’t think she noticed me as she focused on the needle’s steady, but somehow manic, pump. Her foot, with her toenails painted red, pushed at the pedal. A soft smile grew on her face. I closed my eyes, because this image was the same one that I’d seen my whole life.
Sometimes I’d wonder why she babysat and cleaned when she could sew. Every stitch was neat and perfect. No stitch ever went astray. Her clothes that she made looked as if you could buy them from these fancy stores with shiny floors and bright lights. Once, Mae showed me a photograph of her standing, beaming, next to a tall blonde who wore clothes like the ones Mae made. The caption said São Paulo Fashion Show-1984.It must’ve been Pai who wrote that, I wasn’t sure if Mae knew the English words for fashion show. She’d come here a year later, with me growing in her belly.
Mae’s eyes blinked as she looked up and saw me. She smiled, but it wasn’t the same ethereal, relaxed smile she’d worn just moments ago. I wished I could rewind time to see that smile once agin, but it was not to be.
With a flick of the silver scissors, her outfit was ready. She wriggled into her skirt, which wrapped around her hips so tightly that I wondered how she could move, let alone dance like she did. My fingers tangled together as I fastened her sleeveless top, which strained across her breasts. Taking a step back, I inhaled. It was one of her best. The colors swirled around her body in such a way that her waist looked small and hips bigger and rounder. She always complained that she looked more like a rectangle than a woman. I knew better than to believe her. The red in the bodice made her eyes twinkle and I forget about the blue under her eyes.
She twirled around on her tippy-toes and motioned me to come closer. There was a big mirror leaning on the wall where I could see both of our reflections. She looked at me through the mirror and pointed at the dress. I swept my fingers around my face, the sign for beautiful.
Mae smiled and squeezed me closer. She remembered the sign.
We now stood side by side in the mirror. Even though I was only thirteen, I was as tall as Mae, which wasn’t saying much since she was a tiny thing, more a baby peacock than one of those big, tall women we saw here. She pointed to me and then to herself and her mouth moved, forming the words, “You, me, the same.” I stared at her long fingers reflected in the mirror, still pointing toward herself. It was true. I had the same muddy caramel skin, indefinite features, straight nose and thick, fleshy lips. People always peered at me, trying to suss me out. They would ask, “What are you?” When I told them my parents were from Brazil, they nodded as if it explained everything. I was never sure what it explained.
I squinted, making our faces blur together. Then I relaxed my eyes and my vision returned to reality: two of us. When I looked closer, I saw the shadows of wrinkles to come around her thirty-nine-year-old eyes and mouth. The browns and pinks of her makeup hid the ashiness of her skin. Upstate New York winters meant no sun-kissed glow for anyone. My skin was perfectly smooth and dull. But when I had crossed my eyes, we had been exactly alike for a fleeting moment.
I formed each letter as slowly as I could, feeling my fingers shake with the effort. I wasn’t used to the slow, controlled cadence of being at home again. “I d-o-n-t h-a-v-e a d-r-e-s-s l-i-k-e y-o-u-r-s.”
Her lips moved with every letter, forming o’s and e’s tinged with red. It took a few minutes for my hand shapes to transform themselves to letters and then to words. Her lips rose up in a laugh and she hugged me tighter.
I wished her lips would move in the words, ”Não! I’ll make you dress! You will look just like me.” Next to a gorgeous picture of womanliness, I looked like a child. I wore a frayed sweatshirt and jeans that sagged around the knees. You could barely see the bumps that people called breasts under my sweatshirt.
It felt strange to know that someone had touched these bumps just a few days ago, Frank, one of the most popular boys at the Rochester School of the Deaf, no less, had looked deep into my eyes and signed, “You’re gorgeous. Can I kiss you?” His breath had flowed hot down my neck. I told him yes. I wanted that kiss. I wanted to know what it felt like, someone else’s moist lips on mine. At first, it’d felt strange, as if an alien thing had landed on my mouth. Then it had felt nice, letting our moistness mingle. Before I knew it, I felt a warm hand slide under my shirt and settle on one of my mosquito bites. That had been kind of nice, a strange warmth. Then he lifted the shirt and put his mouth where his had had been. I had stared at the top of his head, unsure what to feel. The next morning Missy told me, with her lips raised in a sneer, that Frank had told everyone that he’d scored with me.
I wondered what Mae would’ve done. I knew that she wouldn’t have let Frank do that. She’d have shoved him off her and marched away, her hips swinging.
With a quick kiss on the cheek, Mae shimmied away into the living room to show Pai her new dress. His eyes always lit up every year as he beheld her in all of her Carnaval glory. Today was like all of the others. He wrapped his arms around her waist, kissed her neck and then they swayed together. I averted my eyes when Pai ran his hands down Mae’s silhouette as they rocked to their internal rhythm.
I found my old room stuffed with boxes and a saggy couch that had been a hand-me-down from Sandra, a Brazilian who’d married a rich American. I climbed over the sofa and a few chairs to settle on my bed. For an instant, I missed my bed at school. The bed there was less comfortable, but this room looked like a strange locker, filled with old things nobody knew what to do with. I took out a book from my backpack and forgot about beautiful dresses, hot hands, and the world beyond my door.
I looked up from the page and felt it. A heavy bass beat pulsated through the floors, up my bed, toward me. I opened the door and the vibrations hit my chest. Every drum bang of the samba reverberated through my bones. A blessing and curse of this house was that the floors were worthy of the name superconductors. They were a conduit between me and the feet that danced madly.
As I walked to the living room, the humid heat of fifty bodies packed into a small living room pressed on me. A light sheen of sweat covered everyone’s faces as they smiled and closed their eyes as they gave themselves up to the dance. Individual faces and bodies dissolved into an undulating crowd moving to the drums’ beat. Splashes of colors from the masks spotted the living room, turning the crowd into something better than any parade, any festival. The music thumped through me, making my heart beat in time. The writhing arms and upturned faces all made me smile. I could almost touch their joy, which felt light and heavy all at once.
The ashy smell of cigarettes made me sneeze. Pai was one of the few Brazilians who didn’t smoke. Carnaval was one of the only times that he allowed anyone to smoke here. Carnaval was a special day of exceptions. Through the haze, I saw Roberto who waved me over.
“You’re back! How’s school?” he signed, his signs smooth and fluid.
I pressed my cheek onto his scrawny chest as he squeezed me into a hug. Roberto had lived upstairs for the last ten years. He’d moved in as a graduate student and never left. He’d been the one who sat with me as people floated through the house, teaching me and him how to say please, thank you, want water in sign language.
“School’s good.” I flushed a bit, thinking of Frank and the rumors.
“They treating you okay? It’s all the way out there. This house feels so empty, there’s never anyone around.”
I thought for a moment about telling Roberto everything, about how the other kids asked me if I had been a slave in Brazil, about how Missy shook her head at my shyness, about Frank. Then I looked at Roberto, his slim height, his wavy black hair and skinny mustache. When I was younger, I imagined him and me living upstairs together, him smiling that dimpled simile at me. I imagined us married, just like Mae and Pai. I couldn’t tell him.
“How are you enjoying the party?” I asked instead.
Roberto stared at me, his face still for a moment, then his dimple reappeared. “I love this. I stay here because of the Carnaval. It reminds me of the discotheques back in Mexico City.” He raised his right arm and his mouth moving to the unheard lyrics.
I giggled at the sight of Roberto flinging his long hair about like a teenager. He stopped and leaned forward. For a moment, I forgot about Frank, Missy, and all of them.
“So, about school—” his hands fell away and his eyes drifted to something behind me,“Sorry, I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”
Roberto took off in pursuit of a tall blonde wearing a black eye-mask trimmed with feathers and a tight black skirt that showed more leg than was advisable in single-digit temperatures. I watched them chatter away, wishing that I were that blonde whose lips moved with such rapid confidence. But I could never be like her, so I turned away.
I tried to read some lips, but everyone spoke Portuguese so fast that their lips barely moved. Even if I’d known Portuguese, I’d have been lost. My eyes dropped from the mysterious moving lips and flickering tongues. I saw the half-filled cups of caipirinhas.
I’d always wondered what they tasted like. Pai would slam one back, grinning and said, “Only real Brazilians can drink this. Americans can have their watery piss-water beer and snooty wine!” If Pai had more than two, his eyes glazed over and his smile grew big and sloppy. He always looked happy, the kind of happiness that I only saw on his serious face when he saw Mae dancing. I wanted to touch that happiness, to know it.
I stared at the limes and ice floating in the cup, wondered if the drink looked as devious as it looked. When I was sure that nobody was looking, I gulped down the sugary tartness that burned all the way to my stomach. The sugar’s sweetness and the lime’s tartness melted into something wonderful in my mouth. I needed more so I grabbed another one. I tipped the last one so the last of the liquid dripped down into my mouth, sorry to have no more to drink.
Nobody noticed. Everyone was dancing, dancing, and dancing.
The whole room started to feel unsteady as if the ground had become jelly. My head felt heavy, but the heaviness was a pleasant kind that made me forget to feel shy. Everything felt different, even my clothes felt heavier, rougher on my skin. Giggles burst out of my mouth. I felt like throwing up my arms and shouting for no reason other than to feel the sound vibrate in my throat. Smiling, I watched a red feather bounce in the air as its wearer whirled. The feather looked more alive, more vivid, and more real than before.
A boom, a boom, a boom. The samba pulsated through me, down my legs to my feet.
A boom, a boom, a boom. A thought occurred to me for the first time. I want to dance. I want to dance. I want to dance with everyone. I want, I want, I want!
A boom, a boom, a boom. I squeezed past hot, sweaty bodies clad in colors of all kinds. Then I saw her. Mae was on top of a table, her hips moving in perfect figure-eights. Dark curls stuck to her neck, wet from her sweat as she danced, danced, and danced into oblivion. An arm wound around her waist, pulling her from the table. It was Pai’s hairy arm that held her tight.
Pai didn’t move with Mae’s fluidity. “It’s because he’s São Paulo. We Rio people know how to dance. São Paulo people too serious. They don’t have spirit enough,” Mae had said once. Alone, Pai’s dance was one of efficiency, he moved just enough to match the beats. But with Mae, Pai’s limbs loosened and they found a new rhythm of their own.
A boom, a boom, a boom. A void appeared on the table. I saw people’s mouths opening wide at me, hands reaching for me. Feeling the samba drums inside of me, I took these hands and leapt onto the table. I laughed, laughed, and laughed some more. I can dance! I felt the beat coursing through my body. I shook my hips and head as hard as I could, letting the beat inside of my body escape. Faces, colors, and bodies turned into swirls of wonderful joy. I raised my hands and twirled, twirled and twirled. My cheeks ached from laughter.
I’m dancing! I’m dancing! I’m dancing!
A hand stopped my spinning as if I were a wooden top. I almost pitched forward, but managed not to fall. My eyes slowly focused on Mae e Pai standing by the table. Pai’s strong hands lifted me off the table, setting me in between their warm bodies. My head pulsated as if it had its own heartbeat. I started to move back to the table, but their hands held me in place.
Mae’s red lips moved to the words, “No dance by yourself! Too fast. Let us help you dance.” They both gripped my body, pushing my shoulders, hips, and feet into their rhythm. Their beat was all wrong. Our hips and shoulders collided, making me wince. My feet scrambled to keep my balance as they pulled me forward and then backwards. Their hands tugged at mine in a way that made my skin chafe.
I wrenched myself away. My fingers shook with the effort of maintaining their form as bodies jostled me. “I c-a-n f-e-e-l t-h-e m-u-s-i-c. I c-a-n d-a-n-c-e.” Their dark eyes stared at my fingers with blank confusion.
The room’s humidity started to push down on me. The heat burned my face and my whole body. The music pounded at my brain. The room started to spin faster, faster, faster. I staggered backwards, shaking my head. Mae’s and Pai’s eyes taunted me with their incomprehension. Their mouths opened in useless babble. Something cracked deep inside of me.
I started to sign. My signs flowed fast and choppy. “Why won’t you let me dance? Why don’t you practice sign? Why don’t you learn my language? Why do I have to learn yours? Why don’t you visit me? Why don’t you love me as I am?”
Now Mae and Pai stood still, no longer hearing the music. Their eyes still looked dumbfounded, but Mae’s mouth twisted into a grimace and her eyes grew shiny. Pai looked away, his eyes closed. I stepped backwards, widening the gap between us. The air grew too thick for me to breathe. Maybe they hadn’t understood the words, but they felt the words all the same in the same way that I felt but didn’t hear music. I gulped in some air, put a smile on my face and waved goodbye.
They smiled back, their eyes remaining sad and guilty.
I shoved my way past the dancers toward the sewing room. People let me through, closing back up as if I’d never been there. I slammed the door shut behind me, panting. My entire body shook with tremors that had nothing to do with the samba. My stomach lurched as an afterthought, a reminder of the countless caipirinhas that I’d drunk. I sank to the floor, so not to feel the floor lurch under me anymore.
The air cooled around me and my sweat turned chilly. My heart slowed, as did my breathing. I glanced about. This room was still full of colorful fabrics, threads, and needles. The music felt more distant now, a throb instead of a pulse. I could almost see Mae sitting at the sewing machine, that fragile smile on her face as the needle pierced the fabric.
I got to my unsure feet and walked to the mirror. After staring at myself, I started signing. At first, I closed my eyes, feeling my arms move almost of their own accord. Then I opened them and saw the way that my limbs arced and cut through the air. My fingers outlined perfect figure-eights in the air. My hands, my arms, and even my face found their own beat, their own rhythm. I smiled as I felt the music flow through my body—my music.
© Cristina Hartmann