She dances and dances. One step forward, small steps in between, one step backward. A Latin beat blares through the busy square, but the shuffling feet of passersby and the engines and honks of buses and cars drown the loudspeaker’s efforts. Her black tennis shoes and hot pink laces twirl. A nearby street vendor raises his voice to entice the crowd with his empolvados and cuchuflí. Her shoulders hunch towards the ground, arms barely outstretched to maintain her balance. Although the sun beats down on the distant buildings, the adjacent department store provides just enough shade to shelter the dancer. Sweat pours down her face regardless, dragging down her eyes and lips. The crosswalk light to her left turns red and the crowd temporarily dissipates. She stares straight ahead, her expression contradicting her movements.
The candy store smells like olives. I glance at the ancient man next door sitting on his wooden stool at the entrance to his stall as he motionlessly watches and guards his olives. The illuminated candy store appears even more attractive next to his dark green and black fruit. I take my mother’s hand and walk up to the gleaming candy stall; we have a goal in mind. Ignoring the pink, blue, and yellow candy, we stop at a glass case containing small squares of dough tightly folded around a rectangular piece of dark red membrillo. My mother generously scoops several portions of the cookies into a transparent bag and we set off through the market, passing the olive man on our way out.
The sky darkens as we make our way home. We cheat and eat some of our newly acquired treats, trying – but failing – to limit ourselves to a couple before we get home and my older sisters devour them. At a red light, the dark, curly heads of three small boys suddenly appear, barely visible from the bottom of the driver’s window as they tap the glass with their tiny
fingernails. My mom rolls down the divide between my world and theirs, a meager opening for the space between ours to merge, a cramped space where only a few extended arms and brief words manage to escape. But my mother turns back to smile at me with a compassion and strength that reassures me that it’s all in my head. I’m mildly disappointed to know that I just ate my last cookie, but I peacefully observe the scene unfold. She traces her eyes down to the bag of cookies in my lap, picks it up, and passes it through the opening into their hands. Their eyes widen as huge grins spread across their faces, each child talking excitedly and fussing with the bag as they try to inspect their loot. I beam at my mother, whose bittersweet eyes linger at the window. “Obrigado,” they yell, as they laugh and run away to share their treasure. But the rolled-up window muffles their cries like my childhood glee obscures the wail in a distant favela. As they run, I watch the pale soles of their feet that stand out in the dim light disappear. The light turns green.
The crowd re-engulfs the dancing lady, burying her alive, and extinguishing my hopes to bury my ignorance instead.
The chapel light warms the quiet, gray sky. My family’s swift tongues quickly break the silence as they pile out of the cars and flow through the church’s open doors. We stream through the pews, astonishing the handful of churchgoers who are not prepared for our intensity. My sister and I try to look solemn and pious, like my mom, like the adults, but every time our eyes meet, we fight back giggles. I stare ahead at my mother’s aunts and uncles with their glistening eyes and silvery heads that bend towards the tiles at their feet, rooting them to the soil of past conflicts distant in my mind. I glance back at my cousins, whose small voices only induce more giggling from me and my sister as they echo back the words to the Spanish hymns. They pretend not to notice me, but their raised voices, puffed-up chests, and restrained grins easily expose their intentions. Meanwhile, the priest frantically tries to divide the host to accommodate for my second cousins, great-uncles, and great-aunts who fill the cozy church with their singing.
We stream out as noisily as we streamed in, but now the chilly wind stings our rosy cheeks. A hand tugs at the edge of my coat. Laura announces that I will be riding with her in the back of the pickup truck. She and her sisters pile in – 5, 7, 10, 16. And I join them – 19. Just two sisters and the only brother missing. Two weeks ago, I met the youngest, Amalia, the sweetest and prettiest little girl I’d ever seen – at least until I saw the next one. Even during la once with their wide-open mouths revealing crushed palta and hallullas, or with milk shooting out their noses from their continual laughter. The truck chugs along to reveal the looming edge of the darkened valley, its tattered houses scattered in the distance. The wind really hurts now. I feel Teresa quietly shivering next to me and wrap my puffy coat arms around her. She thanks me with a toothy grin and eyes that smile at you like your mother delicately stroking your back after a long day. She snuggles into my coat and I hold her tighter. At every bump and turn climbing that dirt road, they warm the icy air with their joyful cries.
She’s still dancing, her skin a darker version of mine, her eyes filled with a despair foreign to mine, her dry, wrinkled hands aged from hardships untouched by mine.
My friend’s cigarette smoke passes through the streets next to us, mixing with the waves in the air formed from the day’s sweltering heat. She hasn’t changed a bit. Same wavy, almost curly hair. Same pale skin. Same freckles covering her cheeks and thin nose that barely points upwards at the tip. Her fragile but fine fingers shake a little as she holds her cigarette. “You’re twelve. You shouldn’t be smoking,” I tell her. She cackles with her same high-pitched half-laugh, half-giggle that betrays her current age. “That’s right…It’s been that long.” I disappointedly take a bite of my chocolate ice cream; I had forgotten that the scoops here are barely the size of ping pong balls. “Who do you remember from back then?” asks my old ping pong partner sitting to my left. “Everyone. Justine Cuenot, Pierre Gau, Thibaud Réaud…” I continue to list the names of my classmates from 3rd to 7th grade as she occasionally interrupts me with information about their current whereabouts. She’s clearly impressed. I don’t think any of the people I mentioned remember me too well.
From my seat at the café, I know that the conservatoire flitters among the mazes of streets to my left. Every Saturday, I would rush through its heavy doors to exit onto the street where I would impatiently wait for my parents to envelop me in warmth again. Ahead of me, the alleyway emerges at the small park by the river where friends and lovers relax in the daytime and drunks urinate at night. A block further down the river lies the bridge, a rare opening onto the city’s landscapes that relieves the pressure built up in the narrow streets. A church dome painted turquoise from corroding copper protrudes from across the river. But that side seems barren compared to this familiar bank. Further back along the main street that leads to the bridge stands a dark green door with fading paint and scratches. The door leads to a musty, cramped stairwell, but a platform on the third floor enlarges the space with the entrance to another door that opens to Joyce’s apartment. With each memory, I pick up an edge piece to complete the puzzle’s frame, only to step back and realize that I am left with a frame through which to view nothing. Above us, I imagine looking down on the canvas of pink roofs to fill the puzzle’s gaping hole. I spot the peach-colored tiles that house my elementary school.
Standing at the board in front of the class, the last lines of poetry roll off my tongue. My teacher stares at me for a while in silence. I am anxious to get back to my seat. “That’s incredible. You don’t have an accent.”
Two years earlier, I line up with my class underneath the covered area for the first time, grimly surveying the concrete playground and rows of plane trees with leafless stubs for branches. With each indistinguishable sound, word, and syllable that surrounds me, my discomfort intensifies.
Years later, a family friend diagnoses our speech. He gestures towards my sister, “She has a more neutral accent – maybe closer to the North.” “But you,” he says, turning to face me, “sound like you’re from the region.” My heart soars. This is my home.
But now, my tongue gets caught, betrays my disguise. I roam around the city expecting that square or that fountain to appear around the corner only to find another square and no fountain.
Concentrating on the dance, she does not know where I am from, or hear the subtle accent stowed behind my sealed lips, or see me fumbling around the nearby buildings.
A tall, bony man waits next to me at the tram stop. His pants and leather jacket match his sunken cheeks and dark gray hair. We always exchange nods and smiles, but I always quickly look away to stare harder at the tracks. One day, the suffocating commuters squeeze me to a standing spot that forces me to face his hollow cheeks. In the narrow aisle that cuts through the tram’s center, he talks to me. “Always on the same tram,” he grins, while I nod and laugh politely, feeling the dialect trigger the sweat on my palms. He asks me something that requires an extensive response. I tighten my grip on the metal handle while the tram gains speed and swerves, forcing its passengers to clink together like empty bottles. In the official language, I quietly sputter that I have a hard time understanding the dialect. “Ahhh.” His expression and tone of voice transform him from friend to polite stranger. Luckily, I’m not on this tram for long.
The next day, he’s already on the tram when I step on. Most likely, he got on at the previous stop. Both stops are close. Either work if you live on my hill. Only a couple of minutes in walking time probably account for the difference between my stop and the other. But my throat dries up, my gut sinks, and I wish the voice announcing my stop would come sooner. He never appears on my tram again.
I wish he knew about my neighbors and their daughters, Linn and Meret. For some reason, we became attached before we could even communicate. At first, they would walk down the street and stretch their little arms up to ring our doorbell. My mom would welcome them in by setting two more places at our breakfast table, where they were content to watch wide-eyed as we went about our striking habits: eating Southern biscuits and speaking English. Now, they erupt into giggles whenever I imitate their dialect in my thick accent with the words that they have taught me. “RÜÜÜEEEBLISOOOFT,” I yell. Who knew carrot juice could be so funny? But what will remain once the language leaves, degrades even further, my time spent at home scarcer, the divides more apparent? The man on the tram reappears in my dreams to snatch the girls away from me.
I lean against the concrete building, watching the dancing lady. I wonder where she comes from. I wonder where she lives. I wonder where she got her loudspeaker. I wonder how long she’s had her black tennis shoes with pink laces. I wonder when she starts dancing. I wonder when she stops dancing. I wonder how long she’s been dancing. I wonder why she dances alone. What can I learn from the woman who dances? But most importantly, what have I failed to learn. I lock my eyes onto hers, wanting her to look up and notice me. Our eyes meet, but all I see is darkness.
Marlena Kuhn is a Neuroscience major at Trinity University who was born in Houston, but has had the pleasure of growing up in Brazil, France, and Switzerland.