A Storyby Vivian Ludford
Good morning. Morro da Providência has awoken and you must too.
Climb out of bed, where your mother is still curled up in the sheets, and shuffle to the bathroom. Release the heavy stream of sour morning urine and brush your teeth, quietly. Tiptoe around; it is your mother’s only day off, her sacred day of rest. Tomorrow there will be houses to clean, hotel rooms to tidy. You let her sleep. Climb up to the rooftop to retrieve the school clothes you set out to dry the night before. Your home is at the top of the hill, and from the roof you can see the entirety of Providência, the home-built shanties leaning against each other in haphazard, candy-colored lines of brick and wood, interspersed with trash heaps and vegetable gardens and the winding, crumbled stretch of concrete staircase reaching toward the asfalto.
The air is clear and warm and the sun has slipped out from behind the morro, suspended in the sky like a fried egg. Just past your home, the neighborhood kids have started up a soccer game. One of them kicks the ball into a laundry line and they all start screaming their heads off about the score. Women scrub shirts clean in dirty tubs; children fly kites; men watch television or smoke or head to work. You take the clothes, brittle from roasting in the sun, and set them down in the wicker basket by the door. You stretch the night’s stiffness out of your limbs and rub sleep from your eyes. The sun is harsh on the rooftop, pierces you like the watchman’s gaze. Back inside.
Inside, you pull on your purple cargo shorts and yellow tank top with hands too small for your growing body. The bathroom mirror is cracked and grubby and too high for you to reach, so you’ve pulled a chair over to stand on while you assess your outfit. Tug at the hem of your shorts, tight around your thighs, to make them not dig in so much. Suck in. Run your tongue along your lip, out of habit. The tank top is close-fitting and highlights the little roll of belly fat that hangs over the waistband. You are eleven years old, the age at which self-awareness begins to cement itself in the pits of our stomachs, but you have always been ahead of your peers: you’ve been hating your body ever since you were seven and saw the difference between your mother’s long, lean limbs and your own baby-fat ones. Every day you resolve to do something about this—eat less, not eat at all, take a run—but you always end up caving at the last moment. You love food more than you should, and you often overindulge. Your greatest flaw is your lack of self-control, and you will carry this weakness with you throughout your life, always a bit heavier than you’d like, a little more in debt, the self forever a work in progress, delaying by another minute, day, year, your true, fully realized self.
Enough. Skip breakfast. Today will be a good day.
Your mother stumbles into the bathroom. Rubbing her neck with eyes half closed: “Good morning, meu amor.”
This is a nickname you used to love, but now you cringe at the sound of it. Its usage has been expanded to include Carlos, the short, round-faced empresário who takes your mother out to dinner and sleeps with her but is not her boyfriend. His decision. Carlos thinks that managing a cluster of properties in the favela makes him a big shot, and he wears his aviator sunglasses even at night, stumbling over things in the self-imposed darkness. He is, above all, a fierce advocate of hard work, and he’ll often remind you that he built himself from the ground up and that he’d sooner die than let an undeserving brat like you inherit his success. He talks often about his plan to spend the month of his sixty-fifth birthday selling off his properties and spending all his money on food, liquor, and women. When the money’s gone, he’ll shoot himself in the mouth, just like that. A perfect ending.