Vivas and kisses and embraces and tiny glasses filled with port wine that glistened like blood in the December sunshine and my uncle Rafael home too soon from college proposing a toast to the up-coming woman. This is what everyone is calling me today, Mulher-futura. I’m turning twelve.
My face burns.
Early this morning, as my mother stirred the rice-pudding, as though the measure of her worth as wife, mother, housekeeper, and the receptacle of womanly knowledge and experience depended on it, she said, “Listen Milita, dolls and silliness have to go now, your body will soon change. It’ll sprout quickly like a beanstalk and it’ll bleed; soon you’ll need a brassiere and other things. You’ll have to watch what you say and do in front of men. You mustn’t tempt them. Men can’t help themselves; it’s always the woman who’s to blame.”
I wasn’t sure what it was I wasn’t supposed to say or do in front of men but I didn’t ask, the heat rising to my face like a sudden fever. Subtlety was never my Mother’s way. The aureola on my breasts had started enlarging and my nipples were itchy but I never said anything to anyone. How did my mother know? In the night, sometimes I touched myself. There were days when I couldn’t wait for night’s cover. This was my secret.
Glasses raised, even mine, old enough now to participate, the port scorching a path down my throat to a future unknown, the promise of things unimagined. I’m an adult now.
After the Vivas, the happy birthdays, the kisses, the laughter, we eat foods not seen everyday. Of course. Small plates of rice-pudding with sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top in neat squares, ginger cookies from the grocer’s large glass jar on her counter, roasted chestnuts and pomegranates, the red juice falling like tear drops on the front of my new white woollen dress, a gift from my grandfather. My father’s salary from his reduced three-day week at the cork factory in Montijo hardly manages to keep the hunger away.“Salazar is raping the country,” my father always says when the world isn’t listening. “Hunger and fear padlocks us into silence.”
Talk of leaving the country has filled our dinner table every night for the past year. “There’s gotta be a better way,” my father always says. Brazil was first. After all, they speak Portuguese and many have returned with double chins and bank accounts. But Brazil’s fortunes were beginning to decline, according to some, and so Venezuela was next to appear at our table. Cousins from Algarve, where we are from, had left their farm and immigrated years before. They returned every summer driving a green Chevy Impala convertible, stopping at our house on their way home from Lisbon. I’ve never ridden in a convertible and imagined the luxurious wind softly blowing on the faces and hair of those showered with Venezuelan’s fortunes. Talks and money my father borrowed from my grandfather, my mother’s father next door, were given to a bald man speaking in hushed tones and sporting a thick black moustache. “Somehow,” the man had whispered one night sitting in our kitchen, “I’ll get you there.” I’d hid in the shadows sculpted by the oil lamp resting on the kitchen table. Electricity still hadn’t stretched its costly arms to our hamlet of eight dwellings on the forgotten side of the railroad tracks. The idea of my father leaving us made my knees quiver. How were we going to manage? Bad things happened to women in households without men. Everyone knew this. Women feared this.Young girls were suddenly pregnant, widows were easy prey to the razors of gossip. The bald man with the thick black moustache couldn’t yet provide details of escape from Amendoeiro to Caracas but kept promising, “Somehow, somehow, I’ll get you there.” Meanwhile, a large white bill appeared on the door of the municipal offices in Montijo, announcing Canada’s need for workers, farmers, labourers, trades. My father had grown up in a farm in Algarve, which he believed had been forsaken by God with its red, rocky soil, unforgiving droughts and swarms of locusts . He was ready.
“Presents, presents! Time for presents,” my cousin Ana bellows, two years older and lately talking of Elvis, menstrual pains and French kissing. Occasionally, she bought a small magazine called Celuloide. She’d show it to me, pointing out Elvis gyrating and the steps to rock-and-roll. It cost two escudos. I never had enough money to buy one.
They’d all come. My grandparents next door, Ana and her mother, the dressmaker, Ana’s father already away in France, my uncle Manuel, the shoe-maker and his wife, Dolores, their two sons, my friend Adelaide, and Lourdes from two houses away.
Adelaide didn’t bring me anything. Her father was a clerk at City Hall who got paid monthly, which left the family scrambling for scraps of food for the last week or so. She had eleven siblings. Sometimes I shared my tea-time sandwich with her at school. Lourdes gave me a small notebook with tiny birds on the cover where I was to jot down my thoughts. Well, not all my thoughts. What if my mother found the book? A pair of lilac shoes with a small heel and pointed toes that hurt my feet from my Mother. “The latest fashion,” she said, promising to teach me how to walk in them.
Lilac shoes with heels for me?
As I open the next present, Ana yells, “For your trousseau.” A tea-towel with bunches of violets designs to be embroidered, along with spools of purple and green thread.
More scalding cheeks.
I pray the December air will erase these sign of shame but the day is unusually warm.
Rafael comes close to me, so close I can almost taste the tobacco and port wine in his breath, his hazel eyes incandescent in the brilliant sunny afternoon, make me look away.
He takes my hand and holds it tight. His hand is sweaty. I pull my hand away but he, firmly, takes hold.
“Come, come,” he says, tossing his brown curls in the direction of my backdoor, letting me know where we are heading. In his other hand, he carries his tattered notebook. Musings of a Poet, it says on the cover in fading hand-written black letters. “I wrote a poem for your birthday.”
Rafael has been writing poetry ever since I can remember. Summer evenings under the Muscat-grape and fuchsia-bougainvillea canopy on my grandparents’ patio next door, he plays the banjo and recites poetry serenading the moon and silencing the cicadas. I listen, sitting on my grandmother’s blanket on the cement patio. Most often, I’m his only audience, my grandmother busy in the kitchen either preparing supper or cleaning up. My grandfather never joins us; he isn’t a fan of banjo playing or poetry. He’s a serious, proud man—a proprietario— a builder of houses and a property owner, who can barely sign his name—school not important for boys and men toiling the difficult land when he was a boy. He believes that destiny is ours to shape, to model, like the clay pots on his patio. He wanted an architect for a son.
Banjo in one hand, suitcase in the other, Rafael returned from the architectural college Evora in less than two months. “Orpheus is calling me,” was all he said as he stepped into the house. My grandfather hasn’t spoken to him since. “Ousted, that was what the college’s president had said, my grandfather, in his dusted and aired black Sunday suit and polished shoes, standing before him after a two hour bus ride. My grandfather had refused the offer to sit down. Questioning why his money wasn’t as good as someone else’s seemed better said standing. That’s what he later told us. What he never said—never fully explained—was why Rafael had been ousted. Perhaps he didn’t know, perhaps the college’s president did fear the stocky man in his Sunday black suit. All he said was that there had been trouble with the cleaner of the dormitories. An orphan girl whose older brother wanted reparations. The college paid out some money from the school fees that had been paid for the year. The evening after Rafael returned home, my grandfather shut out of his back door onto the patio where Rafael was playing the banjo, me, again, sitting on my grandmother’s blanket,“No more banjo and no more banjo,” he roared, voice carrying through to the hems of our hamlet, neighbours whispered later, embarrassed for my grandfather. They’d never heard him yell before, “Get a job or get out. Out…Out…” That was a month ago but Rafael hasn’t yet gotten a job or gotten out. Where would he go?
Now I follow him to the backdoor of my house and into my bedroom, the open window looking out onto our garden where everyone is gathered. My hand continues to be held in his.
No one seems to have noticed us leaving. Chatter and laughter drown out the bird prancing in the winter warm sunshine.
He tells me to sit on my bed while he remains standing. I sit. He then steps over to the window and closes the wooden shutters, leaving only a thread of light. Next he shuts the door. The outdoor chatter and laughter are now reduced to a muffled buzz, a distant whisper that no longer seems to speak to me. I think it strange that he shuts us in. I stand up and take a step towards the door.
“Leave it shut,” he says, in a voice that makes me sit back down and say nothing. His hazel eyes are now dark in the muted light. “We don’t want interruptions.”
Rafael sits to my right, his leg dusting mine. The silence of the room turns the air heavy, in the way distant thunder weighs down a summer day.
He opens his notebook and his fly, then takes my hand and gently places it on the inside of his pants.
He reads: Milita, Milita, Oh Milita of the big brown eyes…
His voice is thick, caressing, tremulous, alluring, a voice I hadn’t heard before, a voice that makes me both want to run outside and to stay.
Stay listening and not listening, his eyes on the notebook, my hand on the strange hard thing until he tells me to go back outside and enjoy my party.
The sun blinds me as I step back into a hazy world that was clear only left a few minutes ago. The shapes are wrong, the colours blurry, undefined. Yet the chatting and the laughter continue to decorate the afternoon. Unchanged.
What have I missed?
I walk over to the well located a few steps away from the patio where the carafe with the port wine still glimmers in the sunshine and pull up the thick rope attached to a pail. Our town of dusty, unpaved streets has missed the luxury of running water the way Montijo has. I pick up the clay mug we keep by the well, drink some water and let the rest run and run over my right hand. My mother suddenly appears, her presence returns the flames to my cheeks. “What have you done?” she says, pointing to the stains of the pomegranate juice on my white woollen dress.Those stains will never come off.” Then she asks,“Where have you been?”
“In my bedroom.”
“In your bedroom doing what? The cake ready and you nowhere to be seen!”
“Uncle Rafael wrote a poem for my birthday.”
“Oh, Rafael and his silly poems. He needs a real job.What was the poem about?”
“Milita dos olhos grandes.”
That was all I remembered and all I ever remembered afterwards, Milita of the big eyes.
My father ends up working on a chicken and egg farm in Nova Scotia. He can’t develop a taste for the hot-dogs, hamburgers, and meat loaves he’s served. “Everything smells like the food for the pigs,” he writes. He likes the mashed potatoes. For protein, he ingests raw eggs by making a hole at the end of each shell and sucking in the whole raw egg. He does this when the owners aren’t looking. He lives on the farm for three months. One day his employer takes him to Halifax shopping. There my father meets another Portuguese immigrant who tells him that a farm is not where you make money.Toronto is the place. Lots of construction. My father listens. He wants my younger brother and I to have a safe future.