The Woman of the House

In Issue 60 by Camila Santos

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Photo by Diego Rezende on Unsplash

They had arrived early on a Thursday afternoon, just in time for lunch. Mr. Oswaldo carried two suitcases. A curvy, short brunette in a miniskirt and high-heeled sandals walked into the house right behind him. She wore too much lipstick. As Silmara went into the kitchen to get them a glass of water, she wondered, how old is she? Silmara was not as shocked about the girl’s youth, but rather, at the audacity of bringing her to the house when Ms. Cecília had only moved out a month ago.

The children burst in from school as Silmara was dusting the furniture. She heard the clank of the metal gate, the sound of their footsteps crossing the yard. They were sweaty from the walk home. The oldest, Caio, was the first to notice their father’s car parked in the gravel driveway. They instantly became more subdued, more cautious. And who could blame them? One never knew what to expect when Mr. Oswaldo was home.

Silmara took the children’s backpacks as she told them their father had brought home a visitor. She instantly regretted it, because she could see the hope in their eyes that this visitor might be Ms. Cecília.

“Go wash up, I’m serving lunch at one.” Silmara shooed them out of the living room and up the stairs.

When she came out of the kitchen, a bowl of black beans and a platter of meat in each hand, everyone was already sitting down, but the seating order had changed. Mr. Oswaldo was in his usual place, at the head of the table. Caio and Fernanda still sat next to each other, but they were to the left of Mr. Oswaldo and Fernanda was in her mother’s seat. The girl no longer wore that dark lipstick, and her hair was wet. She sat in Caio’s usual seat. Silmara imagined the girl and Mr. Oswaldo in the master bedroom, on Ms. Cecília’s bed, the girl drying herself with Ms. Cecília’s towels, using Ms. Cecília’s soaps and perfume to wash Mr. Oswaldo’s sweat off her skin. Silmara was disgusted, but it was none of her business, really. That’s what her brother said, back at the farm. Just do your job. They’ll sort themselves out, those rich people always do.

Mr. Oswaldo was in good spirits. Fernanda openly stared at the visitor and the girl smiled at her, asking about her favorite subjects in school. Caio seemed to understand more of what was happening. He answered all the questions posed to him, was polite in his table manners, but avoided looking at his father. Fernanda beamed when she was complimented on her pigtails and ribbons.

“Silmara’s been doing my hair for me, while my mom is sick,” she said innocently.

Caio looked down at his plate. Mr. Oswaldo cleared his throat, about to say something, but the girl placed her hand over his briefly, as if to indicate that it was OK.

“Well, Silmara’s done a wonderful job, hasn’t she?”

Fernanda smiled widely.

“Hurry up and finish your food,” Mr. Oswaldo told his children. “I’ve brought a surprise.”

Fernanda stuffed a large forkful of rice and beans in her mouth, her cheeks puffing out as she chewed.

“You look like a blow fish,” Caio said to his sister, but he was laughing.

“Watch your manners now,” Mr. Oswaldo said. “Can either of you guess what I have in my briefcase?”

“A doll?” Fernanda asked.

“Nope!” Mr. Oswaldo said.

“New stickers for my Mundo Animal book?” Caio asked. He was obsessed with animals ever since that sticker book came out and dreamed of being a vet.

“So cold! North Pole cold,” Mr. Oswaldo said. He got up and brought his briefcase to the table. It never failed to amaze Silmara, how charming Mr. Oswaldo could be when he wanted to.

The next question the girl asked was about the animals in the sticker book.

“Which one do you like the best?” the girl asked.

“It’s hard to say.” Caio placed his silverware neatly on top of his plate. “I guess the bigger ones—like the jaguars. I like tigers the best, but we don’t have them here, so it would be cool to see one up close.”

“We can,” Fernanda chimed in. “If we go to a safari!”

“Do you even know how complicated that would be?” Caio rolled his eyes at his sister.

“Your brother actually does have a point, my love,” Mr. Oswaldo said to Fernanda.

“Well, there’s always the zoo at Dois Irmãos,” the girl offered.

“We’ve already been there a bunch of times,” Caio said.

“What about the manatee in Derby Square?” she insisted. “We can go feed it on a Sunday, I’m sure you’ll love it!”

“Is that the fish that has the beard?” Fernanda asked.

“They’re called whiskers, stupid,” Caio said.

“Do not speak to your sister that way,” Mr. Oswaldo warned.

“I’m sorry, sir.” The boy immediately apologized, his voice down to a whisper.

“I can’t hear you,” Mr. Oswaldo leaned forward.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Caio repeated, louder this time.

Mr. Oswaldo gave a small grunt as his answer.

“You can clear the table now, Silmara,” he ordered.

He leaned down and took the briefcase under the table onto his lap, snapping it open. Inside, among his papers, was a white plastic bag.

“Is that our surprise?” Fernanda asked, jumping from her chair to stand next to her father.

“Not so fast, you greedy little monster,” he teased.

He looped the handles of the bag around his wrist before Fernanda could peek at what was inside.

“Let’s wait until Silmara finishes clearing all the plates.”

“Here, I’ll help.” Fernanda clumsily stacked her plate on top of her brother’s, nearly dropping one as she handed them to Silmara.

As Silmara placed the last of the dishes into the kitchen sink, she heard Mr. Oswaldo cry out, “Who wants candy?”

From the kitchen doorway, she watched the children shriek and run after their father, as he threw fistfuls of candy up in the air, a confetti of pink-and-yellow wrappers raining down the living room.

Silmara looked on at the commotion before her. The girl with the damp hair, what was her name? Luzia. She was still at the table, lighting a cigarette. She took a drag, then clapped as the children raced to see who could get the most candy.

Silmara went back into the kitchen and closed the door behind her. As she washed the dishes, she tried to dismiss the tightness in her chest. The children were finally laughing again. That’s what truly mattered.

***

Everything was left behind, that much Luzia knew. At least Oswaldo had taken care to ask Silmara to pack Cecília’s clothes, so when Luzia moved in and opened the bedroom closet, she faced a row of shiny wooden hangers. Inside the drawers, only mothballs and lavender sachets. This was not how she had imagined the start of her life with Oswaldo. In her daydreams, they lived in one of those new buildings facing Avenida Boa Viagem, the beach a mere ten steps from the front door. They’d take daily walks as the sun dipped under the ocean and make love during his lunch break before he went back to the office. On weekends they’d take the boat out to Itamaracá, have lunch at the yacht club, come home for a quick shower and then hit the discos, their limbs heavy, their skin golden from too much sun. For the past year, she had been able to do those things only when Cecília was away at her late father’s farm, or when Oswaldo managed to sneak Luzia with him on a business trip. Then one day, finally, Cecília stepped out of the way. But what Luzia hadn’t expected was that Cecília didn’t take the children along with her.

Now, she stood in the terrace, watching over the other woman’s kids as they crossed the front yard on their way to school. This was a route Caio and Fernanda were familiar with, their school only a short walk from the house. The sun shone behind a blinding white cloud; the heat much stronger than Luzia expected. Across the street, a man pushed a cart filled with sugar cane stalks, his back shiny with sweat. He was headed towards the beach and Luzia wished she could be there too, but Oswaldo had forbidden her to go to the beach without him. She was too beautiful, too precious and he didn’t like it when other men looked at her. And so, she had also quit her job answering the phones at the bank, because according to Oswaldo, all her co-workers wanted to get her in bed. No one had ever wanted her or taken care of her the way Oswaldo did. She went along with his outdated demands, even if at times, all she wanted to do was get away from the children’s racket and the maid’s judging gaze.

Fernanda looked over her shoulder and Luzia waved good-bye, bidding them a good morning. The girl shyly waved back, but Caio grabbed his sister’s wrist, pulling her arm down as he whispered something in her ear.

Luzia was trying to be patient and understanding with Caio. Part of that meant that she should see them off to school each morning. A bonding ritual, Oswaldo called it. She held no ill will towards the kids. None of this—their unstable mother, the sleeping pills, the clinic Cecília had checked into, how she had abandoned the household, and now this custody battle—none of it was their fault. The lawyer thought Oswaldo’s case would play out better if the children and Luzia weren’t sharing the same house for too long, but Oswaldo maintained that the law was on his side: Cecília had left her home, children, and husband of her own free accord. Like a true, modern woman of the seventies, he had mimicked, and who must now live with the consequences of her actions. Oswaldo also wanted to make sure he was the one to raise Caio. The boy had been doted on so much by his mother that she was bound to turn him into a sissy. Luzia thought Caio was a good kid, and it was only natural for an eleven-year-old to miss his mother. But Oswaldo insisted his son needed to toughen up, and since the kids weren’t hers to begin with, she didn’t press the matter any further.

The bright morning finally burst into the yard, casting a pattern of leaves on the ceramic tiles. Once the children had turned the corner and she lost sight of them, Luzia sat on the hammock and leafed through the day’s paper. She started with the comics, then scanned the society pages for any mention of Cecília, but there was none. She must still be abroad. Luzia read her daily horoscope, then a note about Rosalyn Carter’s upcoming visit to Recife caught her eye. The government of Pernambuco couldn’t decide on a present—should they gift Mrs. Carter a lace tablecloth or a folkloric painting? Luzia wondered which one they’d end up choosing and what would be served at this luncheon. If Cecília had been in town, would she be among the women who’d get to have lunch with the first lady? No, Cecília probably wouldn’t get an invitation now that she was separated from her husband and on her way to being a desquitada. She flipped over to the next page and read over a recipe for moqueca, deciding that the fish stew would be a nice treat for today’s lunch.

Inside the house, she heard the telephone ring and jumped up from the hammock to answer it before Silmara had a chance to. As she ran through the living room, past the kitchen and down the hallway, where the phone was, she thought about how when Oswaldo wasn’t there, the maid undermined Luzia’s authority, sometimes in front of the children. She rolled her eyes when Luzia tried to help her set the table, claiming she was doing it wrong. When Luzia asked her to make a feijoada or even a simpler dish, like a lasagna, there was always some excuse not to do it. Before long, she’d have to tell Oswaldo that she no longer wanted Silmara working for them, that she didn’t care how many years the maid had been with the family.

Luzia picked up the receiver on the third ring, hoping that this time it wouldn’t be another one of the hang-ups that had been happening over the last few days.

“I’m calling about the ad in the paper,” the woman on the other end of the line said. “For the housekeeper?”

“That’s right,” Luzia replied. She looked over her shoulder to make sure the kitchen door was closed and overheard Silmara singing the latest Roberto Carlos hit. The ad Luzia had placed in the paper had been running only since yesterday, and she already had a first candidate. “Do you have your documentation and references in order?” she asked, remembering about the brand-new law that now required maids to register for a work card.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She gave the woman the address and told her to come by later that same morning. Luzia liked the sound of her voice; she seemed very polite. She opened the door to the kitchen and found Silmara drying her hands on a dish towel. The maid was very short and round, with long black hair which she only kept down when she left the house. It was hard to gauge her age, but Luzia would guess she was on either side of thirty.

Luzia had practiced the words in her head. Do not say please. Try to sound like Oswaldo.

“We’re having moqueca for lunch today, Silmara.” She leaned against the refrigerator.

“It’s not Friday. And also, there’s no fish. Only chicken or beef.”

“I know what’s inside my freezers and cupboards,” she replied.

Silmara raised an eyebrow but remained silent, the dishrag hanging from her arm.

“If you go to the fish market now, you’ll be back with plenty of time to cook it.”

Silmara glanced at the clock hanging above the fridge and placed the dishrag on the marble counter.

“Miss Luzia, it’s already eight-thirty. I don’t think that’s very wise. It’s going to be too tight for lunch to be—”

Luzia put the money on the counter.

“You should leave for the market right now then,” she said as she walked out of the kitchen, pleased with how she handled the situation. “And make sure you get the freshest shrimp.”

It was about time everyone understood who the woman of the house was now.

***

Silmara was tired of trying to fix Luzia’s domestic blunders. There was a rhythm to this household, a routine dictated by Mr. Oswaldo that this girl had not yet grasped. They ate chicken on Tuesdays and Thursdays, fish on Fridays, and on Saturdays, they barbecued. But there hadn’t been a barbecue in a very long time.

She took the money Luzia had given her and placed it under her bra, a precaution against any pickpockets that could be on the bus. Once she adjusted the strap of her purse so that it looped taut against her chest, she locked the metal gate behind her. It was nearly nine in the morning and by the time she got back from the market, gutted the fish and peeled the shrimp, Mr. Oswaldo would be home before she’d have time to finish cooking everything. Lunch was the most stressful meal in that household. It needed to be served just as Mr. Oswaldo was pulling up onto the driveway. At least he had the decency to call before he left the office to say he was on his way home. But sometimes there was traffic or Silmara hadn’t timed things properly. He’d rarely yell at her, because to him, Silmara was never truly to blame. The worst of it had always fallen on Ms. Cecília, who Mr. Oswaldo claimed was the one responsible for telling Silmara what to serve for lunch, how to cook it and when to serve it. As soon as they heard the clank of the metal gate and the car’s engine turn off, the children ran to wash their hands, sitting at their designated places. Silmara made sure all the dishes were piping hot while Ms. Cecília helped her put everything in the serving trays. When lunch was perfectly prepared and everyone ate in peace, Silmara felt a pleasant sense of accomplishment, as if she had just run a very difficult obstacle course and won first place. But when she and Ms. Cecília timed a dish incorrectly, Mr. Oswaldo would turn furious, especially if the main dish was served at a temperature not to his liking.

“I call. Every single damn day. And you can’t get this right?” he’d yell.

There were times when nothing would come of it, he’d simply slam a fist on the table, spill a bit of food on the floor, shove some forkfuls in his mouth and storm off to the hammock for his nap. But one never knew what might truly set him off. It could be Ms. Cecília involuntarily rolling her eyes, or Caio, the poor thing, might spill something, or eat too fast or too slow; it could be anything really. Fernanda was the darling. He had never laid a finger on the girl, but Silmara noticed how guilty that made her feel and how Caio would later take it all out on his sister: pinching her, yelling, twisting an arm off her dolls, or ignoring her when she spoke to him. It broke Silmara’s heart to see Caio involuntarily acting like his father.

Silmara walked faster to the bus stop. When she had suggested that a cab would be much faster, Luzia told her she was not running her household lavishly, a veiled allusion to Ms. Cecília and the parties she used to throw before she had finally left for good.

The bus stop was full. An old woman sitting behind a wooden plank counted coins in front of a platter of cocadas and Silmara hoped she would still be there on her way back, so she could get some of the coconut sweets for the kids. People had been waiting a while, which was a good sign the bus would be there soon. Silmara checked her watch again. Nine-fifteen.

A white Volkswagen beetle blasted the latest hit from that tall, curly-haired singer whose name Silmara couldn’t remember. Se te agarro com outro te mato. Te mando algumas flores e depois escapo. As the car sped by, a girl wearing bellbottoms, a crochet top and thick bottleneck glasses tapped her foot and sang along. Silmara could picture the scene in the song so clearly: the jealous lover, the threat to kill his sweetheart if she was ever with another man. But the man’s love was so strong, he’d still have the decency to send her flowers before making his escape.

As far as Silmara could tell, Ms. Cecília had never dreamed of being unfaithful, but that didn’t stop Mr. Oswaldo’s jealous outbursts. All Ms. Cecília ever did was take care of those kids and plan parties, vacations, and meals. But men were a different story, they were built to stray. The problem, she had overheard Ms. Cecília say, was when those hussies made them lose their minds. Ms. Cecília had fought for her marriage, had done everything she could to keep her family intact, but Luzia’s charm and youth proved to be stronger. When Ms. Cecília had finally left, it was a big scandal and now the children were left friendless, their schoolmates making excuses not to come over to the house. And why did she care so much, Silmara’s brother asked her? It was not her responsibility to keep the peace at those people’s household. Silmara had done what he had warned her not to—grown attached. She felt proud when Fernanda would insist that she wanted Silmara to do her hair, because she did it better. Caio always brought her seashells when he went to the beach and helped her feed the stray cats from the neighborhood that wound up in the backyard. She explained to her brother that although Ms. Cecília wasn’t always the best boss—demanding, strict about time off, and adamant that she always wear a uniform—Ms. Cecília didn’t deserve to be treated that way by Mr. Oswaldo, especially since it was all her money. Silmara was happy when her former boss had finally had the courage to leave. But now, Mr. Oswaldo was using their last fight in court. He told the judge that Ms. Cecília had deserted her household and children so that she could get plastic surgery in the United States. To everyone else—nosy neighbors, his friends, even to Luzia—he claimed Ms. Cecília was where she should have been for a long time: in the loony bin. She wondered if Mr. Oswaldo really didn’t understand why his wife had finally walked out the door.

The last fight was on a Saturday, after the family’s weekly barbecue. Silmara remembered how Caio had stood frozen in the middle of the stairs while Mr. Oswaldo called Ms. Cecília a whore, pushing her against the wall. Silmara hadn’t heard the beginning of the fight, but it was something to do with Ms. Cecília being spotted at the movies the previous night. She was crazy about the movies, and Mr. Oswaldo thought she went there to meet someone. When he slapped Ms. Cecília, her head whiplashed like a flag in the wind—right, left, right. Silmara had lunged towards the stairs, grabbed the children, and hid them in her little room in the back of the house. She hugged Fernanda, who was sobbing, and explained to Caio that he needed to be a man now and take care of his sister while she went to get some help. She instructed him not to open the door to anyone, only to her. Then, she ran out and called Ms. Cecília’s sister from the phone in the hallway, speaking in fast whispers, afraid that Mr. Oswaldo was still in the house and would see her. When Ms. Carolina arrived, Mr. Oswaldo had stormed off, probably to spend the night with Luzia in some love motel. Silmara had been trying to get Ms. Cecília to open the bathroom door. As Ms. Carolina coaxed her sister to open the door, Silmara brought some ice for Ms. Cecília’s face. Ms. Carolina chain-smoked, putting the cigarette down on the marble counter in order to wipe the specks of dried blood from her sister’s upper lip.

“I can’t take this anymore.” It was the way in which Ms. Cecília had said it, her voice flat, as if she were ordering a cup of coffee that had tipped Silmara off. This time, she truly had had enough.

“I’ll have Armando talk to him,” Ms. Carolina said, as she stroked her sister’s hair. “You know how much Oswaldo respects him.”

“We’re past that,” Ms. Cecília sighed. “We’re way past that.” She took the ice pack off her eye and sat up, suddenly alert. “Can you join the children in the TV room, Carolina? Make sure they’re OK?” She turned to Silmara. “Come help me pack my bags.”

Before Ms. Cecília got in Ms. Carolina’s car, she had hugged and thanked Silmara. “I can’t take Caio and Fernanda with me yet, Silmara. He’ll say I kidnapped them. But I know that you will take good care of them while I’m away.”

Silmara was certainly trying her best. She no longer scolded Fernanda for painting her dolls with Ms. Cecília’s makeup. Caio was even quieter than usual, spending hours locked in his bedroom playing with the buttons from his futebol de botão set.

The bus screeched to a stop and Silmara followed the other passengers in. There had been so many fights over the years. She’d lost count of all the times she’d swept up the broken china, wiped food off the floor, threatened to quit. She’d go into her little room in the back and take down her suitcase, but the children always managed to find her, and when Caio saw her packing, he’d cry, run out of the room, and tell his mother. Ms. Cecília begged her not to leave, promising she would talk to Mr. Oswaldo, that things would be different. And they would be. At least for a while. Mr. Oswaldo took his wife to fancy restaurants, brought the children to the yacht club, spoiled them with too much candy.

Ms. Cecília gave Silmara entire weekends off so she could see her brother or go to a street fair. Sometimes, there would be a half bottle of perfume in her room. A used pair of shoes. Old issues of Manchete magazine, which Silmara would leaf through after dinner, looking at the colorful pictures of the Amazon River, or a festival honoring Iemanjá in Bahia, or the rows and rows of concrete extending out into the horizon that made up the tall buildings in São Paulo. She could sound out some of the words printed on the page but not enough to read an entire article. Ms. Cecília’s gifts were the leftovers of her boss’s life, things she no longer needed, but Silmara still found them beautiful and useful.

She paid for the bus fare and went through the turnstile, finding a window seat. The bus sped through the overpass, the Capibaribe River sparkling under the sun like the silver she polished once a month. She would do her best to get the fish and have lunch served on time. And if it was served late, she hoped that Mr. Oswaldo was still too enamored with his young mistress to care. And if not, she would once again take the children to her little room. But this time, she’d stay there with them. Let Luzia figure out on her own the mess she’d gotten herself into, the type she had shacked up with.

***

It was a lavish house on a quiet side street, and while not the modern apartment Luzia had in mind when she decided to move in with Oswaldo, the house was a mere seven-minute walk from the beach. When she was a little girl, her mother would take her on the bus to Boa Viagem on Sunday afternoons. They strolled down the boardwalk, licking their ice creams, the water to their right glittering a pale gold. On their left, a parade of fancy cars, tops down, inched their way up the avenue. Only the very rich could afford a house in what used to be a fishermen’s village but was now the shiniest new neighborhood in Recife. She had never imagined that one day she’d be living on the sleek side of town, in a house with a garden and a pool, with chandeliers and shiny mahogany furniture. Luzia was rarely alone since she’d moved in and once Silmara had gone to the fish market, she took the opportunity to take stock of everything, this time at her own pace.

She examined the pictures in the living room more closely. There was a strange painting of a woman’s face inside a circle, shapes that looked like birds, splashes of blue and red in various spots of the canvas. Another showed a row of squat houses on a steep hill, which reminded Luzia of the street she had grown up in, minus the ocean and coconut trees. In the painting, the street was filled with people, and circular swaths of green-blue-red-yellow depicted the swirl of the frevo umbrellas in the hands of the dancers. This was the only painting she enjoyed looking at, because it reminded her of the day she had met Oswaldo—also during Carnaval, but not in the streets of Olinda. They’d met at a party in one of the private clubs. No one had expected him to truly fall in love with her, let alone separate from his wife for her. But here she was, proving them all wrong.

Ever since she moved in, less than a month ago, she had found the house stuffy, the furniture much too dark. What was the purpose of all those dark ceramic vases that didn’t hold any flowers or the mahogany altar at the corner, with its statues of saints that no one prayed or lit candles to? She’d like to put down some new wallpaper, add a few colorful cushions to the sofa, install one of those new sound systems, switch the altar for a minibar.

There were four bedrooms upstairs, and she had already ordered new curtains for the master bedroom. Fernanda’s room was painted a light pink. Dolls lined a shelf above the girl’s bed. On the nightstand, a few storybooks. She opened one of the drawers in the nightstand and found an empty heart-shaped picture frame, a few unsharpened colored pencils, a broken barrette, and some seashells still caked in sand.

When Luzia was little, she had wished for a room like this, even though she knew it was an impossible dream. She had slept in the same room as her mother, and when she was thirteen, she had finally asked if they could move her bed to the sewing room. At least she had some privacy in the evenings, when her mother put away the sewing machine and went to sit on the front steps of their little house, watching and gossiping about the comings and goings of their neighbors. She wondered what they were saying about her now—the studious girl who had won a scholarship to a private school had now turned mistress in the other side of town. At least they weren’t wrong when they predicted she was not destined to stay in the Santo Amaro neighborhood forever. No one had believed that her affair with Oswaldo would have led to her moving in with him, her mother least of all. She had tried to keep Luzia away from him, but Oswaldo had been persistent, had proven that he did love her, that their relationship was not a silly fling because why else would Luzia be here?

Caio’s room was filled with posters of the 1970 Seleção, the players standing with their arms crossed in front of their yellow jerseys, the ones crouching down holding each other’s shoulder. She picked up the sticker book he was so obsessed with. Most of the squares were filled. He needed less than a dozen stickers to finish the album. The boy was neat, or maybe this was all Silmara’s doing, but she didn’t think so. The inside of the desk drawers was immaculate and Luzia had a feeling that if she moved anything, Caio would notice it right away. She found a picture of the children and Cecília under the mattress, the three of them huddled together smiling directly at the camera, a clown sitting in a semicircle of kids and a table of sweets in the background. This must be the missing picture from the heart-shaped frame she found in Fernanda’s room. She wondered whose birthday they had been celebrating and if Cecília would miss any of their birthdays this year. What type of mother abandons her children like that? Luzia knew that Cecília had been unwell, but that was so many weeks ago. Maybe she was still abroad, at the clinic. She placed the picture back under the mattress and went into the guest room, where Caio and Fernanda liked to watch television.

Inside the top cabinets above the closet, she found cardboard boxes filled with serving dishes, probably for the big fancy parties Cecília liked to throw. Another box had a few recipe books and photo albums: the children’s first birthdays, Cecília’s family farm and the big white house with the wraparound porch surrounded by open fields, cows grazing in the distance. She found old black-and-white portraits of people Luzia could only imagine were now dead and then there was Cecília’s and Oswaldo’s wedding album. She hesitated but her curiosity was greater than any reticence she might be feeling. She opened the first page to a radiant Cecília looking directly at the camera, a large bouquet of flowers on a table next to her. She looked like a movie star, her lips perfectly heart-shaped, as if God himself had drawn them in. Her eyes were a feline green, the expression on her face defiant, as if she dared the photographer to find a bad angle. She quickly put the album away and flipped through another one, stopping to stare at a beautiful black-and-white photo of a young Oswaldo and Cecília. They were in the middle of an immense square sitting in front of what seemed to be a fountain, surrounded by a blur of pigeons in mid-flight. Once again, Cecília is staring straight at the camera, hands outstretched towards the birds. Oswaldo has an arm wrapped around her waist, a tender gaze in his eyes as he looks down at Cecília’s smiling face, oblivious to anything around him.

Would she ever measure up to this woman? But he chose me, not her. Me, not her, she repeated to herself. She shut the album and rummaged through the next shelf. Among the plastic bags with old school uniforms and Carnaval costumes, she found a beautiful tablecloth, the delicate white flowers endlessly looping through the heavy white linen. As she admired the stitching, Luzia saw her mother hunched over her school uniforms, patiently embroidering initials in shirts and skirts, and she suddenly missed her. Her mother had told her not to live with Oswaldo, that she was making a mistake. But by the time she had met Oswaldo, Luzia was sick of the little room with the sewing machine, the strips of fabric she’d find under the furniture and between cushions. Most of all, she was sick of those women coming and going, stripping their clothes and tucking in their stomachs so that her mother could take their measurements. She traced the flowers on the tablecloth, remembering the note in the newspaper about the American first lady. Luzia had read somewhere that Mrs. Carter had grown up poor, that her mother had also been a seamstress. Mrs. Carter would certainly appreciate the artisanship of an embroidered tablecloth more than that of a painting. She suddenly wondered what was the use of having all this beautiful stuff if it lived crammed inside some closet? As she got down from the chair she had been standing on, setting the tablecloth aside, she heard the doorbell.

Luzia looked around the room. What a mess she had made, there were boxes everywhere. The doorbell rang again, and she ran down the stairs and through the living room to answer it. She had forgotten all about the appointment with the girl for the housekeeping position.

The woman standing outside the metal gate was about her age and at least a head taller than Luzia, with beautiful, tanned skin. She wore a handkerchief around her hair. Little beads of sweat covered her upper lip and she fanned herself with the folded page of the classifieds.

“You’re Marlene?” she asked the woman.

The woman nodded.

“Come on in.” She closed the gate behind them. “So, this is the house.” Luzia gestured to the house behind her. “As you can see, it’s pretty big and you’d need to do all the cleaning and cooking.”

“That’s not a problem,” Marlene said. Luzia watched her take in the front yard, the covered patio, the floor to ceiling windows that separated the living room from the swimming pool. She’d had the same reaction when she had first seen the house, but she knew enough not to gape.

“Let’s go around this way,” she said, leading Marlene through the garage to the service area and into the kitchen. “In addition to the cooking and cleaning, you will need to get the children to school on time and serve them lunch and dinner, of course.”

They stood in the middle of the kitchen. Luzia pulled up a chair and sat down at the kitchen table.

“Please, have a seat.”

Marlene sat across from her, her purse on her lap. “How old are your children?”

Luzia lit a cigarette. “They’re my boyfriend’s. The girl is eight and the boy is eleven. They are easy, very polite.”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m sure they are.”

Luzia liked how Marlene looked at her briefly when she answered each question, then gazed down at her hands. She seemed very respectful.

“Tell me why you left the last family you were with.”

“I was with them since I was fourteen, but Mr. Renato was transferred to São Paulo—"

“They didn’t offer to take you with them?”

“They did,” she fidgeted, looking down at her hands, “but I didn’t want to leave my son.”

“Ah, I see. And how old is he?”

“He’s almost two.”

“Do you have someone to leave him with? I can’t have you distracted while you’re here.”

“I leave him with my mother, ma’am. She helps me raise him.”

“A smart decision.” She took a drag of her cigarette. “And you’re a top-notch cook, forno e fogão, like I specified in the ad?”

“Yes, I can prepare anything you want.”

She took another drag of her cigarette. Marlene seemed perfect.

“Since you’re already here, do you mind helping me with something?”

“Yes, ma’am. Of course.”

Luzia stubbed out the cigarette in the kitchen sink then led the way to the guest room.

“I’ll hand you the stuff and you can put it back on the top shelves, OK?”

Marlene nodded and climbed on top of the chair that was facing the open closet. She wore a faded denim skirt that ended just above her knees. Her legs were long, smooth, and Luzia had an image of Marlene parading around the house in that navy-blue uniform Silmara wore, which would fit her just fine, but her legs were much longer and would be on display for Oswaldo to see. Why bring temptation into the household? Better stick with Silmara for a little longer while she found someone a bit older.

After they were done stashing all the boxes in the closet, Luzia led her through the living room towards the kitchen.

“When would you like me to start, ma’am?” Marlene asked.

Luzia hesitated for longer than she should have. “I still have a couple more people to talk to,” she stammered.

Marlene’s eyes narrowed as she realized that she wouldn’t get the job. Just then, the telephone rang.

“I have to get that,” Luzia said as she made her way to the hallway, glad to have an excuse to end their conversation. “Please see yourself out. There’s a back entrance through that door, in the kitchen.”

“Can I use the bathroom first?” Marlene asked.

“Yes, just use the one right here. It’s that door next to the stairs.” She motioned with her head and turned to answer the phone as Marlene disappeared back into the dining room.

She picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

Silence.

“Hello? Hello?” she repeated, “get a life, you—” She heard a click, then the long tone of the disconnected call. When she had mentioned it to Oswaldo, he shrugged it off, saying it was probably kids prank calling. “I’ll give them a piece of my mind if I pick up the next time it happens,” he said.

When she went back into the living room, Marlene was still there, leaning at the edge of the dining room table.

“Please don’t lean on the furniture,” she scolded her. “Why are you still here?”

“I’m not sure how to get back out, ma’am,” Marlene said.

Luzia sighed and told her to come along. As they crossed the yard to the front gate, Luzia remembered she had some cash in her back pocket. “Here, take this,” she told Marlene. “For your time today,” and she handed Marlene the bills.

Marlene opened her mouth as if to say something but changed her mind.

“Is something the matter?” Luzia asked.

“No, I just…” she hesitated as she twisted her purse strap. “I know you’re not going to hire me, but I also didn’t expect you’d pay me for my time earlier.” She looked over Luzia’s shoulder back at the house, as if she had forgotten something.

But before Luzia could ask if she had in fact forgotten anything, Marlene was already halfway down the sidewalk walking towards the bus stop.

It was Caio who noticed the deep scratch on the dining room table, a jagged half circle exposing the wood beneath the varnish. Fernanda stood on her tiptoes, leaning over her brother’s shoulder in order to take a closer look.

“Daddy’s not gonna like this one bit,” Fernanda said, as she ran up the stairs to change out of her school uniform.

“Don’t mind her. Just cover it up with a tablecloth,” Caio said to Luzia as he followed his sister up the stairs.

***

First, there was the sound of crushed gravel as Mr. Oswaldo’s car pulled up onto the driveway. Silmara had been in the kitchen, peeling shrimp as fast as she could—the fish steaks were marinating in lemon, the bell peppers lay scattered into tiny pieces on the cutting board, and a pot of rice bubbled on the stovetop. She heard his footsteps in the dining room, then he stormed into the kitchen, asking why the food wasn’t ready and where the hell was everyone? She had recognized the way his brows furrowed, the flare in his nostrils and was glad she had told the children to take their time getting ready for lunch, that they were to stay in their rooms until she called for them.

She had tried to warn Luzia, too.

“There’s some strips of beef in the fridge and I can fry them with onion. It will only take a few minutes.”

But the girl was stubborn.

“I know you’re used to having things done a certain way around here, but I know how to handle a hungry man, Silmara,” and she disappeared up the stairs, cigarette in hand.

What had surprised Silmara the most was how Luzia had, in fact, managed to calm Mr. Oswaldo. She had even laid out the fancy tablecloth and had asked Silmara to bring out the wine glasses. When Silmara brought over the pitcher of acerola juice, she found Luzia taking Mr. Oswaldo by the hand, offering to make him a quick omelet while they waited for the main dish. When he sat down at the head of the table, she plopped down on his lap, practically hanging from his neck. He seemed to be on the cusp of irritation and glee. Silmara realized that it was all going to be OK, that Luzia was like a kid playing house and that she was worrying over nothing.

“Silmara got the freshest fish at the fair today, darling,” Luzia purred into Mr. Oswaldo’s ear.

Mr. Oswaldo asked Silmara for a glass of water.

“How much longer?” he asked, once the glass was in front of him.

“Just five more minutes, sir,” Silmara said. “I’ll bring the salad out now and it will be ready by the time you finish eating it.”

At the exact moment that she set the salad down, Silmara felt a strange bump on the mahogany tabletop, instinctively drawing her hand back.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing sir, I think there’s something under the tablecloth—”

He drew a section of the linen off the table and from that point on, time seemed to speed up but also to slow down, and everything happened as Silmara had predicted: the shouting, the questions about who had done it, was it Caio or Fernanda? Luzia defended the children, but Mr. Oswaldo insisted. If not the children, if not Luzia, if not Silmara, then who? Who had been in the house? Silmara heard snippets of Luzia’s explanation. Something about replacing her with a new girl, as if she were a faulty lightbulb or piece of broken china and not the force that propelled that household to function. Silmara’s indignation at her potential replacement was interrupted by Mr. Oswaldo’s shouts and his disbelief. He thought Luzia had brought one of her friends over when he had strictly forbidden her any visitors. There was the sound of glasses shattering on the floor. The snap of an open palm against a soft cheek. The thud of limbs slammed against the wall and the familiar refrain he used with Ms. Cecília: whore, you lying, filthy, nasty, whore.

That was yesterday. Today, Luzia had spent the day in sunglasses, sitting under the shade of an umbrella staring at the pool. At least Ms. Cecília had people to turn to. After a fight, she’d take the children and drive to a friend’s house. Or Ms. Carolina would come over and they’d spend the afternoon talking while Silmara took the kids to the beach. Luzia hadn’t called a single person, at least Silmara hadn’t noticed it. She had refused the tea Silmara had taken up to her, along with the thin strips of raw beef that were sure to help with the bruises. Mr. Oswaldo had spent the night God knows where, but this was a pattern Silmara also recognized: he’d be back in a day or two, an extravagant bouquet of flowers under his arm, begging for forgiveness, making promises he would never be able to keep. And even though Silmara couldn’t stand Luzia, she had to give her credit when credit was due: it would have been easy for Luzia to save herself from Mr. Oswaldo’s wrath by blaming the kids for that table scratch. Luzia’s sudden strength of character was surprising and Silmara found herself thinking that not even a homewrecker of her sort deserved to go through this.

***

For the first few days, Luzia didn’t want anyone to see her face, and so she had worn sunglasses. In sunglasses, she could walk by the mirror in the living room and pretend nothing had happened. That week, the phone rang more than usual, but she let Silmara answer it. She overheard Silmara tell callers that the position had been filled. The woman inside the mirror, the one in sunglasses, couldn’t feel the throbbing in her temples, had no yellow and purple stains on her left cheek and around her eyes, didn’t care about what was served for lunch, didn’t keep tabs on who the maid called and how much time she spent on the phone and no longer cared about seeing the children off to school. The person in the mirror was simply a glamourous girl in beautiful sunglasses, who spent her time smoking and staring at the pool, counting dead bugs and fallen leaves as they floated in aquamarine blue.

Fernanda came up behind her, interrupting her thoughts.

“I made you this,” the girl said, handing her a drawing of a woman floating in a pool, a bright yellow sun, a semicircle for the red umbrella Luzia was sitting under.

“It’s very beautiful, thank you.”

She kept staring at Luzia.

“My mom also wore sunglasses when my dad got mad,” Fernanda blurted out.

Luzia felt her chest tighten.

Fernanda kissed her on the cheek, quickly.

“Would you like to draw another picture?” Luzia asked.

“No,” Fernanda said. She crouched down and put a hand in the water. “Can I swim?

“Sure, why not? Tell Caio he’s welcome to join you.”

As she watched the children splash around the water, she felt she could breathe deeper, more easily. The feeling wasn’t happiness or peace, but a stillness she hadn’t felt in a long time. Just then, the telephone rang and for the first time in days, she got up to answer it. Maybe Oswaldo was finally calling to apologize. Silmara had beat her to it and had the phone in her hand. As she walked into the hallway, the maid looked at Luzia for a flicker of a second, before speaking into the receiver.

“You have the wrong number. There’s no one here by that name.”

And at that moment, Luzia knew. Next time the phone rang, she’d be ready for Cecília.

***

The day was warm but overcast. She had told Oswaldo she’d like to take the children to see the manatee that afternoon, after they got home from school.

“But on a weekday? Isn’t it better on Sundays when all the street vendors are there?”

“It’s so crowded on weekends. The kids would barely get a chance to see the manatee. This way, they can see it up close.”

Once they had finished eating lunch and Oswaldo had left to go back to the office, Luzia asked Silmara if she could do Fernanda’s hair. “You know, the way she likes to wear it, with those white ribbons?”

She picked Caio’s outfit herself. Bermudas, a button-down short-sleeved shirt and a white belt.

“Don’t forget your Mundo Animal sticker album, Caio,” she instructed. “It’ll be super cool to compare the picture of the manatee with the real thing.” She applied a second layer of lipstick in the hallway mirror.

As the cab pulled up to the front of the house, it began to drizzle.

“Are you sure this is a good idea, Miss Luzia?” Silmara asked.

“I don’t want to get wet!” Fernanda chimed in.

“Come on, don’t be silly now. You know Recife has crazy weather. The sun will be out by the time we get there. The cab is already here. We’re going,” she said.

“I don’t want to go, this is stupid,” Caio said.

Luzia grabbed him by the hand.

“Listen, Caio,” she said, “I promise you this is the best thing you’ll ever see. It’s only a little drizzle.”

Fernanda crossed her arms and stood next to Silmara.

“Are you both made of sugar or something? You’ll melt if there’s a little drop of water on you?”

Caio rolled his eyes. Fernanda leaned closer into Silmara.

The maid dropped to her knees to talk to Fernanda. “How about this? If it rains any harder, Miss Luzia can take you to the café for that really good cake you like so much.”

Fernanda brightened up. Luzia mouthed a thank you to Silmara.

“What do you say to that?” Luzia asked. “Ready?”

As they filed into the car and closed the door, the metal gate opened and Silmara ran out with a plastic bag under her arm.

“You almost forgot the popcorn to feed the big fish!” she cried.

When the cab pulled up to Derby Square, the park was nearly empty, but it had stopped drizzling. After she paid the driver, Luzia took another look at the kids, making sure their clothes were stain-free.

They walked past slick, wet benches. Bright pink jambo flowers covered the ground, and the air smelled of soil and dead leaves. The manatee tank sat in the middle of the square and once the children noticed it, they ran towards the granite edge, excited. When a round face swam up to them, Fernanda started squealing. Caio stood wide-eyed, silently watching.

“It’s so big,” he said. “It hardly fits in the tank.”

“Hold out your hand like this.” Luzia showed them, stretching out her arm toward the tank.

“How come?” Fernanda asked.

“For food, right?” Caio asked her.

“Oh, no!” Luzia suddenly remembered. “We left the popcorn in the cab.”

“Don’t worry, I brought some.”

She had come up behind them so quietly, even Luzia hadn’t heard her footsteps. Cecília’s hair was short now, up to her chin and she had lost a significant amount of weight. She wore jeans, a printed blouse and a single strand of pearls around her neck.

Fernanda gasped. Caio froze, as if he couldn’t believe that she was there, that the woman stretching her arms wide was really his mother.

Luzia gave him a little shove.

“Go,” she urged.

She waited until Cecília had kissed them, over and over, looking away to give them some privacy. When Luzia thought enough time had passed, she told Cecília that she’d be back in an hour to take them home. Luzia crossed the park on her way to the café, feeling a hunger she hadn’t felt in months and as she ate a second piece of cake, she realized that the feeling hadn’t been hunger but a deep sense of relief.

On the way home, Fernanda cried the entire way. Even the cab driver had tried to make her smile, but soon he gave up. Luzia held the girl in her arms, stroking her head. Caio sat to her left, stoic, looking out the window until the cab pulled up in front of their house.

He leaned over Luzia towards his sister.

“Pull yourself together, Nanda,” he said.

Luzia had never heard him call her by a nickname before.

“You have to keep it together,” he insisted.

“It’s fine, Caio,” Luzia said. “Let her have a cry.”

“No, you don’t understand!” his voice faltered, and his eyes shone with the tears he was trying to contain. “If she gets home like that, what will we tell Dad?”

As she noticed the fear and anger in the boy’s eyes, Luzia felt the weight of what she had done. Not only the secret visit, but all of it. All of it.

She caught the driver’s eye through the rearview mirror. “Can you loop around the block? We need another minute,” she said.

The man nodded, turned the engine back on and made a right turn.

“What will we tell your dad? Well,” she took a deep breath. She must learn how to live with this weight. “We’ll tell him the truth.”

They both turned to her as if she had lost her mind.

“The truth?” Fernanda looked up at Luzia, trying to contain her sobs. “But won’t we get in trouble?”

“The truth,” she said as she squeezed both of their hands, “is that I brought you to see the manatee.”

The cab had completed the loop around the block and was turning onto their street.

“Yeah, but what if he notices—”

“Did you like the manatee?” she asked. “Was it cool?” Luzia didn’t wait for an answer. “Because if you did, we can always go again.”

“Really?” Fernanda perked up.

“Here, take my handkerchief,” Luzia said. “And yes, really.”

The car came to a stop. Luzia opened her wallet to pay the driver.

“So, you’ll take us there again?” Caio asked.

The driver handed her the change. She quickly counted the money and put it in her wallet. She caught the driver’s eye again and motioned with her hand for one more minute.

“The manatee is not going anywhere, and as long as I’m here, we can go as much as you like.”

Caio nodded, slowly. Fernanda finally smiled, curling up closer to her.

“As much as you like,” Luzia repeated.

About the Author

Camila Santos

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Camila Santos’s work has appeared in Newtown Literary, Minola Review, Columbia Journal and the New York Times. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translations from Queens College and has been awarded residencies at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Soaring Gardens, Vermont Studio Center and Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts. In 2020, she was named a Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellow. She grew up in Recife, Brazil and has lived in Queens since 2004. She is currently working on her first novel and a collection of short stories.