Illustration: Jacob Myrick.

Her costumes occupy an entire room in my house. I’m still surprised by how heavy the dresses are; I no longer have the strength to remove them from their bags. All of those rhinestones and beading make some weigh as much as six kilos, some twelve. It’s a wonder how Graça ever danced in them, let alone stood for hours on set, propped up by an ironing board at her back so she would not be tempted to sit and possibly ruin her costume.

What’s astonishing wasn’t the costumes, but the fact that Graça was not swallowed up by them. Any other woman would have seemed invisible beneath the sequins and stones, but Sofia Salvador made them seem natural, almost necessary—the glittering carapace that protected everything vulnerable underneath.

Being a woman is always a performance; only the very old and very young are allowed to bow out of it. The rest must play our parts with vigor but seemingly without effort. Our bodies must be forms molded to fit the requirements of our times: pinched, plucked, painted, not painted, covered, uncovered, perfumed, dyed, squeezed, injected, powdered, snipped, sloughed, moisturized, fed or unfed, and on and on, until such costumes seem innate. Everywhere, you are observed and assessed: walking down the street, riding a bus, driving a car, eating in a café. You must smile, but not too widely. You must be pleasant, but not forward. You must accommodate and ingratiate but not never offer too much of yourself, and never for your own pleasure. If you do this, it must be in secret.

Any deviance from this role has the potential for disaster: shun the part and you are trying to be a man; you are a bitch; you are angry; you are pitiful; you are a dyke, or, as they used to call us in my day, a “Big Foot.” Embrace the role with too much gusto and you are a puta, like my mother. Either extreme can get you beaten, or defiled, or simply killed and dumped in a ditch. If you think I am exaggerating, or that I am trapped in a harsh past and times have changed, then listen carefully to what I am telling you now: when you have no power in this world you must create your own, you must adapt to your environment and try to foil the many dangers around you, so a woman’s pleasantness—her smile, her grace, her cheer, her sweetness, her perfumed body, her carefully made‑up face—isn’t some silly by-product of fashions or tastes; it is a means of survival. The performance may cripple us, but it keeps us alive.

When I think of our first months in Rio’s Lapa neighborhood, it’s a wonder Graça and I didn’t end up dead and floating in Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. You could say we had luck on our side, but I prefer to think of it as the economies of scale. When cicadas leave the safety of the earth every seventeen years and crawl into the light, they have no stingers or barbs or poisons to protect them from their predators. Their only defense is their sheer number. So it was in Lapa in 1935—there were girls everywhere. Shopgirls, good‑time girls, cleaning girls, cigarette girls, errand girls, candy girls, showgirls, butterfly girls, and girls like Graça and me, who refused to be anything but ourselves. This is, of course, the most dangerous thing any girl can be.

It was easy to disappear. In those days, a regular phone line was a great luxury. Even automobiles were rare. For the police to be notified of a disappearance, someone had to physically run to a station and tell them. It must have taken the Sion Sisters the better part of the afternoon to realize Graça and I were gone, and then to fetch the authorities. Senhor Pimentel, Graça’s father, would have been informed of Graça’s disappearance from the Sion School the next day, by telegram.

Riacho Doce, the Senhor’s plantation, was twenty‑three hundred kilometers north, in what may as well have been a different country. And what could a northeastern sugar planter know about Rio and its convoluted workings, its dozens of neighborhoods, its lazy police always sniffing for bribes? Plus, President Getúlio wasn’t loved by all Brazilians; in São Paulo there’d been a bloody revolt against him, and then the communists tried to lead uprisings in four major cities. With so many threats, Getúlio’s police didn’t have the manpower or the desire to find a piddly sugar planter’s daughter. And if no one could look for Graça, they certainly wouldn’t look for me, Graça’s maid. I was no one’s daughter. I was no one’s heir. You can’t disappear if you’ve never existed.

We were found eventually, but by then Graça and I had already transformed ourselves. Or, I should say, Lapa transformed us. Sweet, decadent, rotten Lapa! A neighborhood of musicians and thugs, of tourists and pickpockets, and girls—heaps of girls—most of them like Graça and me: so full of hope and naive illusions that we ached inside. Lapa either ruined girls like us or saved them; there were no in-betweens.

Tour company brochures billed Rio de Janeiro as “The City of Splendor.” These advertisements never mentioned Lapa, but plenty of visitors—men especially—found the neighborhood. In Lapa’s maze of cabarets and juke joints you could find senators listening to foreign jazz bands; handsome young bucks flashing vials of cocaine inside their suit jackets and whispering “Sweet flour!” to any passerby; rebellious debutantes from Rio’s best families holding fast to their boyfriends’ arms and laughing wildly, masking their fear with giddiness. In Lapa there were rooms you could rent by the hour, and hotels with brass doors as shiny as mirrors opened by white-gloved doormen; restaurants that served Beef Wellington next door to dives with sticky tables and bloodstained floors; boardinghouses with so many residents their hallways were as crowded as cabarets; and apartment buildings with electric lighting and gated elevators where an army of “kept girls” lived in stylish prison, locked inside their rooms until their rich patrons—men and women alike—visited bearing food and department store gifts.

In Lapa you heard the heart-bracing rhythms of samba and the slow, thunderous drums of candomblé rituals, and if you wanted to keep breathing you didn’t dare interrupt either, because both were a religion. At night there were always nervous foreigners alongside Rio’s well-dressed elite traipsing through Lapa’s alleys, attempting with all their might to escape their privileged lives by doing whatever they pleased with whomever they pleased, and always for a price. Nothing was free in Lapa except for music, and even that changed, eventually.

Graça and I changed, too. I suppose you could say we lost our innocence in Lapa. By innocence I do not mean some silly notion of purity; depending on your definition of virtue, that kind of innocence could end as swiftly as a peck on the cheek. What is more difficult to lose—and terrible when it is lost—is the belief that the dreams you’d nourished as a child are attainable, the idea that hard work can make up for lack of talent, the silly conviction that life doles out her rewards and challenges fairly among us. What is fairness, after all, but an illusion?

Illusions, Vinicius sings in one of our songs, aren’t terrible. They are what make exile, and love, bearable.

*

Our first night in Lapa, Graça and I ended up at a rooming house run by a square‑jawed matron who looked like one of our stern Sion nuns, only without a habit. This was probably why we chose her place; it seemed the safest.

“Pay on time or I give away your room,” she barked. “And no male visitors. This isn’t that kind of establishment.”

Graça nodded and I took the brass room key. I had no idea how we would pay our new landlady at the end of the week, but I kept quiet and followed Graça upstairs. Our room had a sagging bed, a rusted sink, and a dark, unfortunate stain on the floor. Graça sat gingerly on the bed, as if afraid the frame would collapse. She sniffed the air, then leaned and smelled the bedcover. She immediately stood.

“These sheets smell like other people,” she said.

“At least they don’t smell like dogs,” I said, trying to cheer her. Graça covered her face in her hands.

I kept quiet, knowing better than to console. We were exhausted. After taking a tourist taxi from Corcovado to Mayrink—the only radio station in the city—we’d spent the rest of the day on our feet, in front of the station’s doors. Graça and I sang for every person who moved in and out of Mayrink. The station’s employees laughed at us. They patted our heads. One man gave us a coin, which Graça threw furiously into the gutter. Later, at the boardinghouse, I wished she hadn’t done that. With our braided hair and plain white blouses and Sion skirts—mine brown, Graça’s blue—we looked like what we were, or what we had been until we escaped: simple schoolgirls. No one took us seriously, but, I later realized, the men were careful not to proposition us because it seemed like we had homes and families. By evening Graça and I were ravenous. Our throats were sore and our feet ached. I was secretly thankful when a security guard at the radio station finally shooed us away.

I took the last of our money (the tourist taxi, we’d later find out, had greatly overcharged us) and bought us a bottle of Coca‑Cola and a fried meat pie, food we were never allowed to eat at Sion or Riacho Doce. The soda was warm and terribly sweet. The pie leaked oil.

“Should we go back to school?” I asked, dreaming of our tidy Sion beds.

Graça’s lip curled. “Never.”

So we found our way into Lapa.

The next morning I woke to find Graça in her camisole, hunched over the edge of the bed. I thought she was sick or possibly crying until I heard ripping. Her school skirt sat on her lap. Using the metal tip of her crucifix, Graça ripped away the threads of her skirt’s school patch, the Sion crest.

“They’ll be looking for us,” she said. “The sooner we get rid of these uniforms the better.”

When she finished she admired her work, then lit a match and burned the detached patch, throwing the blackened remnants out the window and into the alley below, along with her crucifix. At the sink, Graça splashed water onto her face and wove her shiny brown hair into a braid. Then she dressed.

“I’m going down the hall to use the toilet,” she announced. “Then I’m heading back to Mayrink.”

My eyes were crusted with sleep. My stomach ached. Even Sion’s breakfast of watery oats and a hard-boiled egg sounded lovely to me. Graça shut the door loudly behind her. I heard her short, purposeful steps to the hall toilet and realized she would not wait for me. She would head to Mayrink alone if I wasn’t ready to go. I scrambled from bed and washed my face, using the front of my Sion skirt as a towel.

We were careful to take the same route to Mayrink as we had the evening before, so we wouldn’t get lost. Halfway there, Graça stopped walking.

“I’m hungry,” she said.

“Me too.”

Graça looked impatient. “I need breakfast. I can’t sing all day like this.”

“We used all our milréis yesterday, on the cab and dinner,” I said.

Graça stared, confused.

“To buy food we need money,” I said.

People pushed past us on the crooked sidewalk. There were sharp screeches of metal against metal as a barber and a café owner lifted the gates from the fronts of their businesses. Near us, an old woman washed vomit from her front steps. She eyed us and upturned a bucket. Water slapped the stone and splashed against our legs, soaking our shoes. Graça jumped toward me and grabbed my hands, as if she was afraid she might be swept away.

“But I’m starving, Dor,” she said again, as if this might change things, as if I controlled whether we ate or not.

“We have to get jobs,” I said.

“At the radio station?”

I shook my head. “Maybe one day, soon. But in the meantime we’ll have to look for something else. To get us by.”

“Get us by,” Graça repeated. “And once we’re by, I can start singing.”

“We can,” I corrected.

*

During those first miserable days when Graça and I begged for work, we discovered that our accents alerted people immediately that we were from the northeast, which made us both—even Graça with her lighter skin and her good looks—considered inferior. We also discovered that Lapa was not one neighborhood but two, each with its own tribes, customs, and rules. There was daytime Lapa with its profusion of bakeries, pharmacies, barbershops, fruit peddlers, flower vendors, window washers, shoeshine boys, and countless little factories that made tourist trinkets for foreigners to buy at the docks. This was the Lapa of hustlers and enterprise. Everywhere you looked, there were deals and trades and gossip. Everyone you saw lived in the neighborhood. Nighttime was when outsiders arrived. Shoe repair shops turned into bars, cafés into dance parlors. Newspaper boys reappeared on the streets selling cigarettes and hits of ether. Girls with painted lips lingered in doorways. Neighborhood toughs carried knives and staked out street corners.

At dusk on our second, dismal day in the city, just as daytime Lapa and nighttime Lapa were trading places, Graça and I returned to our boardinghouse without work and faint with empty stomachs.

“Oh, baby girl, you’re stoppin’ my heart,” a man shouted to Graça. He wore a tie as thin as a ribbon.

Graça stared intently at the sidewalk. The man’s buddy tipped his fedora and blew kisses. We weren’t at Riacho Doce anymore, where all the men were forced to look away from the Little Miss or lose their jobs.

“Hey, Stretch!” the buddy called. I glanced up at him. “Yeah, you!” he persisted. “Hot damn! Look at those long thighs of yours. What lapas!”

The Sion skirt was the same one I’d had since we first arrived at the convent school the year before and, by the time we ran away, its hem barely covered my knees. On Graça, the skirt accentuated her tiny waist and full hips. Her lace camisole was easily visible under her white blouse and, under that, there was no hiding the fullness of her chest.

“You girls look hungry,” the fedora man said. “How ’bout we get you some grub?”

Graça glanced at me. I threaded my arm through hers and walked faster, nearly dragging her along. Those boys weren’t harmless and we both knew it; if we were unable to pay for our little room we’d be on the street, at their mercy.

Across from our boardinghouse, a man had set up a little fire and grate where he grilled corn and sold it for five tostões. Graça stared at the fire, then closed her eyes, as if the food was too painful to see.

“I’m going back,” she said, her eyes shut tight. “To Sion?”

Graça shook her head, impatient. “To those malandros. I’m telling them to buy us dinner.”

“But they’ll want things from us.”

“I don’t care,” Graça said, sinking onto the boardinghouse stoop. “I’ll give them anything.”

Graça was always a creature of the present—she wanted what she wanted in that moment, without regard to future sacrifices. I slumped beside Graça.

“Someone will give us a break tomorrow,” I said. “And we’ll buy a huge lunch. You can eat a whole steak if you want.”

“Shut up, Dor!” Graça said. “The closest we’re getting to a steak is if we steal one off a table, like two street mutts.” She hid her head between her knees. She sniffled and let out little moans. The smell of corn and butter grew stronger; my stomach knotted. I pressed my palms to my eyes and tried to think of a plan. Someone kicked the toe of my shoe.

A boy stood before us. His clothes were made of sturdy fabric, though they looked like they hadn’t been washed in weeks. His knees were gray, their skin strangely thick. Under one arm he cradled a shoeshine box. In his other hand—its nails rimmed black—he held out a corncob.

“Take it,” he ordered.

I hesitated. Graça looked up, her face blotched pink, and snatched the cob from his hand. She ate quickly, her little teeth gnawing until half the cob was white and empty. Before she could eat it all, I grabbed the cob and finished it off.

Hunger sharpens memory. I still recall the smoky taste of that corn; the way the butter slid across my lips; the way each kernel popped between my teeth! As soon as I’d finished, Graça took the cob from me and sucked the last of its butter off.

“We can’t pay you back,” I said, wiping my mouth with my arm. “If you could, you would’ve bought dinner yourself,” the boy replied. “I shine shoes on the corner. I saw you gals leaving this morning. Lapa’s not easy for new folks. Especially rich ones.”

“We’re not rich,” I said.

The boy looked us up and down. “Some fancy schoolgirl went missing. She got lost in Tijuca Forest a few days back. Wandered off from her school’s group. People around Corcovado are still looking for her on the mountain.”

Graça forgot the cob in her hands. “Where’d you hear that?” she asked.

“It’s in the papers. I can’t read but the men whose shoes I shine sure can.”

My chest felt very tight, as if my lungs had been sewn shut and no air could pass in or out of them.

“But you’re two schoolgirls and the papers say only one’s gone missing,” the boy said, then tapped my shoe with his toe again. “Those are real nice. Patent leather. I can sell them—they’ll get you a good price.”

“We can’t go barefoot,” Graça said.

The boy smiled, his teeth yellow. A pack of cigarettes peeked from his shirt pocket. “You can get some sandals, real cheap. You’ve got to pay your landlady, don’t you? She’s as nice as a dog with rabies.”

Graça laughed.

“And listen,” the boy said, lowering his voice. “Those outfits aren’t doing you two any favors. You look like gals whose families will send police to find you, and no one here likes police, if you catch my drift. You can sell those outfits, too. There’s places around here where girls are paid to dress up,” he said, and wiggled his eyebrows. “Rich folks that visit at night like some weird shit, I tell you. I know a house where they might want to buy some schoolgirl threads. I can take you there in the morning.”

“Why?” I asked.

The boy looked surprised. “You’ll give me a cut of whatever you sell. And you’ll pay me back for the corn.”

“You’re a real businessman,” I said.

The boy smiled. “Querida, in Lapa that’s the only way to be. So, we have a deal?”

Graça and I looked at each other. It was the only offer we’d heard all day. She nodded at me and I at her, as if we were doing business with each other. Then we agreed to meet the boy the next morning to sell the clothes off our backs.

Wearing cheap sandals and secondhand dresses, Graça and I blended in with daytime Lapa, and began to learn its ropes. We got odd jobs sweeping front stoops, husking corn for the vendor on our corner, fetching drinking water from the local pump for our landlady, plucking chickens for a little lunch place, washing dishes, scrubbing windows. Or, rather, I did these things and Graça lagged behind, complaining that her broom was too heavy, the chickens too smelly, the dishwater too hot, the buckets too hard to carry. Still, each morning we set out like explorers, learning Lapa’s streets, its alleys, its rhythms.

Carmelita’s Alley was where the snobby French girls lived and worked. (In those days anything French was considered high‑class.) Joaquim Silva Street was where you found the Poles—blonde and pale with a dour look to them. (I suppose I’d be dour, too, if I was always considered second‑rate to a French girl.) Morais e Vale Street was where local good‑time girls worked. The borders of Lapa near the Senate, Catete Palace, and the House of Representatives had wide streets, smooth sidewalks, and better shops. Lapa’s best cabarets were around there, too. They had marquees with real electric lights, and ticket booths out front where snooty-looking girls sat behind glass and collected money. Inside were second-rate vaudeville acts shipped in from the USA and foreign bands, because anything from outside Brazil was considered chic. If you wanted to find real music, you had to risk going deeper inside Lapa.

Of course, Graça and I didn’t know what samba was until Lapa. At the time, tango was so popular that Brazilian singers were putting out their own versions in badly accented Spanish. But Lapa’s music was different—it had none of tango’s toughness or sharp tones. From our boardinghouse window we heard guitars, the metallic clang of agogô bells, the cry of cuícas. There were homemade instruments, too: beans in a tin can, hollow gourds, forks moving back and forth across the sharp teeth of coconut scrapers, the shaking of matches in a box. These were what people called the batucada—sounds that were common by themselves but that, together, became distinct. The batucada moved like a school of fish, always keeping pace with one another whether they were diving forward or pulling back.

Doormen, bellhops, waiters, sweet-flour pushers, street toughs, barbers, and others came together at the end of each day and played for one another, and everyone in Lapa listened. These were not the lighthearted, silly marchinhas that Odeon and Victor later recorded and sold each year during Carnaval. Samba was never truly about happiness.

 

“I sing to find you.
Hoping my voice will carry
through your window
to your bed
and my words will touch you where I can’t.”

 

In our boardinghouse room each night I lay bone‑tired beside Graça, her breath on my neck, and listened to those men’s laments. Hearing them, I felt slippery inside, as if something had spilled within me.

Those first months in Lapa were, for me, a kind of paradise. Every night Graça and I curled side by side in our sagging bed, holding hands and laughing about our day’s adventures. We learned how to use the little money we made, how to bargain, how to wash properly without having a bathtub full of water at our disposal. We learned how to swear. Porra, asshole, boceta, creep, piroca, and many other, more colorful words became things we said with relish. We’d also learned Lapa’s language: a “hoofer” was a dancer, and we did not wear shoes but “ground grippers.” If something or someone was batatas, they were the best around. We did not say good‑bye but “Gotta fly!” We called friends and workmates nêgo or nêga. We addressed the shopkeeper on the corner, the butcher, the trolley driver all as querido and we giggled each time we did this, thrilled to be calling perfect strangers the endearment that a wife would use for her husband. And I wrote all of it down in my little notebook—the one the Senhora had gifted me long ago—making lists of new words and scenes and smells, until the book’s pages began to fill.

During these weeks, Graça and I were together like nail and finger, as we say in Portuguese. In Lapa, we weren’t Little Miss and Jega. We weren’t Sion Student and Helper. We were, finally, just Graça and Dores.

Years later, Graça told people that this was the worst time in her life. I was surprised every time she said this. Sure, we were dirt poor and learning to navigate a new city, but we were together and surrounded by music. It was foolish to believe that this was enough to make Graça content.

*

One evening, after Graça and I had finished sweeping the hair from a barbershop floor, she refused the coins the owner offered us.

“We’ll get paid in cuts,” Graça said, plopping into his chair and holding up her braid. “Lop it off. I’ll take one of those Marlene Dietrich bobs. And she will, too.”

We couldn’t afford tickets to the cinema, but we admired Marlene Dietrich in movie posters plastered around Lapa. Other girls in the neighborhood had taken to wearing Dietrich’s risqué hairstyle, cut just below the chin and leaving their necks exposed. Graça, of course, wouldn’t be outdone. The bobbed style made her look older and, at the same time, mischievous, like a little girl about to make trouble.

I’d never gotten a haircut in my life. When it was my turn to sit in the barber’s chair, I held tightly to my long, heavy braid and thought of Senhora Pimentel—how, years before, she’d brushed and styled my “Indian’s hair,” as if it was something to be cared for and admired. I rose from the chair.

“I’m not cutting mine,” I announced.

“Why not?” Graça asked.

“I don’t want to.”

Graça’s eyes narrowed. “You look like a goddamn milkmaid. It’s embarrassing. If we want to move up, we need new looks.”

“Move up where?”

“I’m not working these piddly jobs forever. We’re getting our hair cut, and then we’re getting a regular gig at one of the tourist shops, where they really pay. First chance we get, we’re buying new dresses— no more of these god‑awful potato sacks—and we’re going back to Mayrink. I didn’t come here to sweep, I came here to sing. What about you?”

I returned to the chair. The barber, a quiet old man, wasn’t used to cutting women’s hair. He held my braid gingerly, then took his largest scissors, the blades cool against my neck, and sliced hard. The braid fell to the floor and lay there, a dark, limp snake at Graça’s feet. I looked into the mirror and saw eyes that startled me with their blackness; the sharp line of a jaw; jutting cheekbones made more severe from a diet of coffee and bread; a neck, long and almost beautiful in its nakedness.

*

The most popular tourist trinkets were tea trays, bonbon boxes, and pencil cups covered with iridescent scenes of Rio and Sugarloaf Mountain. These scenes weren’t made with paint. They were made with butterfly wings—detached from their bodies and glued strategically onto any surface to resemble Rio’s skyline. Yellow and orange wings for sunsets, blue wings for the sky, black for Sugarloaf, brown for beach sand. Girls like Graça and me did the gluing. A few days after debuting our new haircuts, we were hired to work in a souvenir shop blocks from the Senate.

There were twenty girls in Mr. Souza’s shop, each of us paid by the piece. Some girls were better at gluing the wings; their pieces sold for more money. The pay was much better than at our previous odd jobs, but it was tedious work. The glue made me dizzy. The shop’s work‑ room was humid and cramped. The butterfly wings tore easily in my hands. (We had to pay one vintém for every wing we broke!) Graça was worse than I was at our new job. The butterfly wings were very pretty and Graça liked to hold them up in the room’s weak light.

“Will you look at this color, Dor?” she asked. “I didn’t even know these colors existed.”

Graça worked slowly, which made Mr. Souza, the shop’s owner, impatient. He often hunched over us while we glued, pretending to look at our work but really letting his hands wander. The first time I felt his fingers brush the side of my breast I nearly knocked my glue pot over. After a few of these brushings, Mr. Souza realized, I think, that there was nothing much on me to feel and moved his attentions to the better-endowed girls. Graça liked to sing while she worked, and, hearing her voice, the other girls encouraged her. Mr. Souza didn’t complain on our first day, but by day three, whenever Mr. Souza came close to Graça and his fat little hands tried to cup her bosom, she stopped singing. The silence made us raise our heads in her direction and Mr. Souza backed away.

“No more singing,” he announced. “I want work, not chirping!”

At the end of each workday, Graça and I left our table in a great rush, hoping to get to Mayrink before six p.m., when the evening’s radio announcers arrived. Graça and I sang for them as they walked into the station’s doors, often until our voices were hoarse. There were other street performers—comedians, singers, a ventriloquist—also hoping to land a radio gig, so Graça and I had to rush to Mayrink to beat the pack and grab our corner. But before we could leave the butterfly shop, we had to wait for Mr. Souza to pay us our day’s wages, counting our finished pieces and then dropping coins into our hands.

Mr. Souza never had a particular order in which he paid us, but no one ever wanted to be last. Sometimes the last girl was paid like everyone else and allowed to leave the butterfly shop. But every few weeks, when the mood struck Souza, he called the last girl for her payment and made a great show of searching his pockets for more change, quickly declaring that they were empty. The last girl had to receive her payment in his office. He never chose the prettiest girls, but the quietest ones. At the time, I didn’t let myself speculate why Mr. Souza took a girl into his office and closed the door in order to pay her. I believed that those girls were no concern of mine or of Graça’s. They weren’t us, and we weren’t them.

After a pleasant month of work, Graça and I were able to pay rent, buy decent food, even put down payment on two new dresses with belted waists and fluttering sleeves, the latest style. Every day after work, on our way to Rádio Mayrink we walked by the seamstress’s shop and admired the dresses in her window, knowing that, soon, we’d be wearing them.

One evening, Mr. Souza paid girl after girl, weaving between the worktables to inspect their pieces. Graça and I waited, shifting impatiently behind our table. After a few minutes, only she and I were left.

The other girls lingered around us, pretending to count their money or tie their shoes. Really, they were waiting to see which of us would be last. Mr. Souza counted our finished butterfly pieces, then turned around and dropped several coins into Graça’s hands. My eyes burned from the glue’s fumes. I felt dizzy as Mr. Souza shoved his thick hands into his pockets.

“Let’s see here,” he said to me, then shook his head. “What’s your name again?”

“Dores.”

Mr. Souza cocked his head in the direction of his office. I glanced at Graça. She pursed her lips and bugged her eyes, trying to warn me. But I’d had a particularly productive day—I’d finished nearly twenty pieces—and if we didn’t get my wages, we wouldn’t be able to pay our landlady in full for the week, or buy our dresses.

I felt Mr. Souza’s hand on my shoulder, guiding me to his office door. I felt the other girls’ eyes on my back, watching me just as I had watched some of them follow Mr. Souza into that dark little room with the warped wooden door.

Before we reached the threshold, there was a loud clang. I turned around. So did Mr. Souza. Graça ran from worktable to worktable, collecting jars of glue and tins of wings and throwing them all into the air. The glue jars shattered on the workroom floor. Some of the tins opened before they reached the floor, releasing a cloud of blue and orange and red and black wings. The remaining girls squealed and hooted and held out their hands to catch the floating wings.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mr. Souza yelled, knocking me aside and rushing toward Graça. There were whispers, then the click‑clack of heels. The other butterfly girls—who’d lived in Lapa long enough to know when to make a quick exit—pushed through the front door. Souza caught Graça’s arm. She threw a tin at his face. He twisted her wrist until Graça staggered toward him, her back against his chest. She yelped.

I felt as if I had been pushed underwater. Sounds seemed faraway and distorted. My vision was a blur. I seemed to move slowly—as if the air had thickened to liquid—taking one stride, then another, using my arms to propel me forward, toward Souza, then leaning, picking up a wooden work stool, and lifting it high over my head.

When the stool came down, sound returned. There was a satisfying crack. Souza slumped to his knees, then fell, face‑first, pinning Graça underneath him. She screamed. I dropped the stool, then dragged her out.

Souza stayed quiet on the floor in front of us, a knot the size of a plum on the back of his head. I held on to the rickety worktable so I would not fall, but my body shook so violently that the table wobbled under my grip.

Graça slipped her hand into Souza’s back pocket, removed a wad of bills, then stood and grabbed my arm, dragging me across that sticky floor and out the back door.

We ran so fast, everything around us blurred. We ducked into alleyways and wove around fruit hawkers and sweet-flour boys. The butterfly wings were how I kept Graça in my sights as we ran—her curls were dotted with iridescent blues and yellows.

After what seemed like an eternity of running, we ducked into the dark doorway of a shoe repair shop. Graça rested her hands on her knees and leaned over, catching her breath. My lungs felt too big for my chest. My sides cramped. I felt a terrible heat rising in my stomach and worried I was going to be sick. Graça stared at me. I expected her to boast about how fast we’d gotten away, or to congratulate herself for her quick thinking about the money. Instead, Graça took a long breath and asked: “Are you dumb or something?”

“No.”

“Well you sure act like it. Don’t you know what he does in that office?”

“I wasn’t going to let him do it to me.”

“So you were going to fight him in there but not out in the open, in front of the other girls?”

My head ached as if I was the one hit by the stool. Why had I let Souza steer me toward that door? Would I have allowed him to touch me for a few measly mil-réis? Why had I stood up for Graça, but not for myself?

“I wanted my money,” I said. “How else were we going to pay for our room?”

Graça shook her head. “Well you didn’t have to crack his skull.”

“You think I cracked his skull?”

“I’m not a fucking doctor! You could’ve just stepped on his foot. Or kicked his shins. Or kneed him in the pinto. But you always take things too far, Dor. One second you’re a little housemaid about to let him drag you into some closet, the next you’re a fucking lunatic.”

“I was never a maid,” I said.

“What were you, then?” Graça asked.

The saliva in my mouth felt too warm; I held my stomach. I wanted Graça to answer her own question: to say that I was her friend. That I was Dor.

“Maybe I’m used to seeing girls get dragged into closets,” I said. “It’s nothing new to us.”

Graça was quiet. Blood leached from her face in patches, leaving a jagged, pale line that ran from her nose to her forehead and disappeared in her hair. “Papai was lonely after Mamãe. He drank too much. He was never like that butterfly pervert.”

“If you miss him so much, you should go back.”

“Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll leave you here to get arrested.”

I pictured Souza on the floor, blood leaking from his head. Then I doubled over and vomited on Graça’s sandaled feet.

She gasped and staggered backward. “Aw, hell, Dor,” she said. Then she moved next to me and tucked my loose hair behind my ears. “It’s okay,” she said, her voice soft. “All the police care about is arresting commies. And anyway, he’s not dead.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he’s not,” she snapped.

“You can’t just decide he’s alive.”

“Why can’t I? You can groan and moan and worry all you want, but I’m telling you: he’s not dead.”

Graça grabbed my shoulders as if she was about to shake me. Instead, she brought her mouth very close to mine and spoke slowly, as if I was a child. “That’s not possible. That’s not how things are going to turn out for us. We’re here to make it big. And you don’t have to follow anybody’s orders. Not ever again.”

The money she’d swiped was stuffed inside her camisole. Graça patted the bulge under her shirt.

“Now let’s go home and buy ourselves a real bath in the landlady’s tub. With bubbles. I can’t smell like vomit for weeks on end, and we’ve got to get these butterflies off us. Just in case.”

I used to wonder what would’ve happened if I’d had the better voice and Graça the lesser one. Would I have become Sofia Salvador? Would I have been able to withstand the rigors of fame? Would Graça have lived past her twenty-sixth birthday if she hadn’t become Sofia Salvador and I had? I realize now that none of these questions matter. Graça would have been a performer no matter what. And I would never be a star—not a real one. Not because I had the lesser talent, but because I had the lesser imagination. I knew how to work, how to avoid going hungry, how to survive. But I always needed Graça to teach me about possibility.

Frances de Pontes Peebles

Frances de Pontes Peebles is the author of the novel The Seamstress, which was translated into nine languages and won the Elle Grand Prix for fiction, the Friends of American Writers Award, and the James Michener-Copernicus Society of America Fellowship. Born in Pernambuco, Brazil, she is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The Air You Breathe will be published by Riverhead Books August 21, 2018.

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