Aparecida twists her left wrist to try and catch a glimpse of her watch. The van was late, again. The woman sighs as she wipes off the golden drops of sweat from her face. Although the sun just came up, it blazes without mercy. Zona Sul, Zona Sul, the change collector screams announcing the van’s final destination. Relieved, she finds her way to the rare spot by the window. The two-hour commute from Madureira to Ipanema is becoming increasingly bearable since her mother sent her an mp3 player for her eighteenth birthday.
As she arrives at a narrow-gated street with a yellow private sign, she double-checks the address. Before she can call for help, Cristina- a perfectly coiffured lady in light-green loafers- comes floating to the entrance gate. The woman kisses her on both cheeks. She asks if Aparecida had trouble to find the place, if she lives too far away, if she has already picked up the carioca accent. Aparecida smiles and follows Cristina down the row of beautiful houses; glass facades transitioning to plain white ones, shades of plants that didn’t grow where she came from, a soothing ocean breeze.
For the next twenty minutes, Cristina gives a tour of the house. “The worst part of living near the ocean is what the sea mist does to the silver. They need to be wiped every day”, she says. Aparecida agrees as she takes mental notes on all the instructions. She secretly tries to picture her house inside of the living room where she was standing; it was give or take twice the size of her home.
After visiting the pool area, both kitchens and the small library, they head towards the bedrooms. As Cristina points to an inconvenient leak in the ceiling, a young pale girl comes skipping down the long hall. She carries a blonde doll that slows her down but doesn’t stop her from jumping on one of Aparecida’s legs. Maria is a six-year old that often behaves like a grown-up. So it happens that today she broke her own rule and decided to make friends with the stranger her mother would soon call family. As her lisp made it hard for her to pronounce R’s, she simply called the new woman Cida.
Cristina half-smiled at the sight of her daughter getting along with Aparecida and was confident she had found the perfect person for the job. “And you’re also good with kids! What more could I ask for”, says the mother throwing her locks back with the complacence of the well mannered. Aparecida nods and turns her attention to the little girl’s fair eyes. She had her mother’s thick eyebrows, like two dark lines drawn under her bleached bangs. Cida wonders from whom she got the blue eyes. She gets lost for a moment imagining if this child would ever be aware of the life she belongs to, if she would someday realize how fortunate she is.
Maria screams asking where Cida put her blue bikini. They are late to meet the girl’s father at the golf club and Maria is starting to have one of her anxiety attacks. Cida finds it at the bottom-left drawer, giving Maria a disappointed look. As she walks away, she rolls her eyes to herself. She came to really love Maria over the past five years. But events like these overtook her with a mothering instinct she tried to suppress. Cristina was always travelling so Cida was the main female presence in the house. This reality made it hard for her to define her place in the girl’s life. She thought of herself more as a friend than a nanny or maid. And even though Maria treated her as an older sister most days, these lines were just really tricky. Overwhelming.
The golf club is one of the most disturbing places Cida has been since she came to Rio de Janeiro. She learnt that Maria’s father needed to write a permission slip for her to get in. Something about only white people being allowed there. It bothered her that Maria was the one to tell her this, as if her parents did anything to avoid their responsibilities. The day the girl made her sign the club’s rules of conviviality, she was really shocked. It was not that she minded not going into the pool, but wearing a uniform was where she would draw a line.
As she sits by the water complex composed by three different pool functions, Cida contemplates Rocinha. The biggest favela in Brazil, carved on the slopes of the mountains that circle the club. She was beginning to understand what her cousins had always said about Rio. That people came here pulled by their eyes, the promises of abundant jobs and wealth, and left pushed by their stomachs. Later, she would call her mother and talk about how she felt urban poverty had a different quality than the rural one she was used to. But now, she reapplies Maria’s sunscreen and gets ready to see the girl’s take on synchronized swimming.
Cristina leans over the carrara marble counter. She makes lively movements with both of her hands, oftentimes pressing her fingers against her temples, mumbling to herself if she is possibly forgetting anything. As Cida witnesses the scene, she asks if she can be of any service. She finds it intriguing how Cristina always gets nervous before leaving abroad and imagines what could be so stressful about Paris. Distracted, Cristina thanks Cida for agreeing to move into the house and taking care of Maria while she and her husband are gone.
When Cida accepted the invitation a few weeks ago all she could think was living near the beach for two months. She called her mother in João Pessoa to tell her she could send them more money this month, to say she was relieved to avoid the stinky van, to say she could finally take time to study music. Now, she puts her belongings in the guest bedroom and lets her hands caress the lavender scented sheets. She fears she might get used to this in a heartbeat.
As Cida chats with Maria about the upcoming months, she thickens her tone, pretending to be in charge. Cida did not like the idea of authority, did not think Maria’s porcelain skin could handle any type of hardship from the world, did not imagine how the girl could survive outside of her gated life. But still, she played the part and felt successful when receiving an impatient response from the teenager.
The next week at breakfast, Cida spends hours looking for the recipe of the American-style pancakes Maria loves so dearly. The girl always says it reminds her of her childhood, even though Cida is not quite sure what this means. But she makes it anyway to cheer Maria up, since she overheard the girl talking about being depressed. As far as Cida knew, only elderly people had time to get depressed. Usually when they couldn’t work anymore and felt useless to their families and community. The fact that Maria and her friends competed on who was the most miserable was something she sincerely could not grasp. She had felt sad herself, of course, but there was always too much work to do, too many people to care of. None of this mattered anyway since Maria never came out of her room to eat.
Cida wakes up with the house alarm blasting her eardrums. She swiftly runs to the front door to see what is happening. When she finds no apparent threat, she yells for Maria. Minutes go by without an answer. She leaves the house on loafers, jumping through the cobblestoned pathway into the narrow street. In the distance, near the cloaked gate, she identifies what looks like Maria’s shadow.
Later that night, they would cry on each other’s shoulders, Maria would recount for her claustrophobic life, she’d apologize for scaring Cida and thank her for being the family she never had. But now, Cida is desperately trying to figure out how to float on such slippery shoes, prevent the girl from doing whatever she was planning on doing and try and make some sense of the deranged reality they were both sharing.