Sometimes you have to stare a hundred times before an image sticks, before you understand half of what’s hidden there, still living, behind the snapshot. Uncle Pedro used to say that, in the mornings when he showed me the streets of São Paulo, pointing out the people he knew, the places where he had lived out his best days—a worn down house with ‘a woman from a time,’ or a crumbling café where he played cavaquinho and sang nostalgic old songs till dawn (“See that cracked door? See the older paint underneath?”).
He wasn’t my real uncle. My family lived in São Paulo for two years and we moved on, as we always did. Sometimes he drank with my father and other embassy men. He hardly spoke to my mother—only hello and goodbye, excellent meal, safe travels.
Now I try to piece those years together in snapshots I can memorize and unpack:
The garden he planted for us—neat beds of roses and orchids, a single sunflower.
Uncle Pedro and my father in deck chairs, nodding over their whiskey glasses.
My mother hidden by millions of droplets and the lilac steam.
Since our return to New York, she smokes in secret and takes long, slow showers. I catch glimpses of her and try to see beyond them. How strange she becomes. She plays a familiar Brazilian song on repeat. Um girassol… it begins. She lets it run five times as she stares at nothing, into the hot stream or at the rivulets forming on the tiles, both hands folded over her chest, head bowed and eyes so far away she might be sleeping. She stays frozen like that. Now and then she twists at the waist as if a hand has brushed the small of her back. Sometimes she lays her head against the tiles and lets wet strands fall into her mouth. She is traveling, Brazilians would say.
One day I hear her mumbling the lyrics perfectly. She doesn’t speak Portuguese. When she spots me, she wakes from the trance, smiles warmly through the water. I mean to say one thing (how does she know the words?) but I say something else instead. Later I think the image must have begun to stick. “I miss São Paulo,” I tell her.
“Me too, honey,” she says.
“I miss Uncle Pedro,” I say. She gives me a strange look, turns off the tap and wraps herself in a towel so that her secrets are hidden again, until tomorrow when I’m a day older and might see a little more.
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