Fellow • Bruna Dantas Lobato
My mother called me via Skype from our apartment on the outskirts of Natal. She told me it was the warmest day of the year so far, that she planned to go swimming in the ocean later in the afternoon.
She showed me the familiar view from the twelfth floor, satellite dishes on every roof. Then I showed her my apartment in Boston: my room and the view of the backyard through my window. She liked all the pine trees. She asked me about the snow, the storms, the sparse clouds.
It’s all white, I said. This is the whitest place I’ve ever seen.
Things are and aren’t the same without you here, she suddenly said. I lit another candle for your grandmother this morning. Your aunt Janaina got a part-time job as a subject for lab tests. Cousin Marlena is almost in her tenth month of pregnancy.
Tell me about your life there. How’s college?
I told her I went sightseeing the other day—only I actually said that I saw some sights, because the word sightseeing doesn’t exist in Portuguese.
Her video froze, and it moved again. She nodded.
And how are you doing?
Okay, I said.
You spoke English, she said.
I asked, What?
Okay is English.
We say that in our language too.
A palavra em português é ôquei.
Ôquei, I said. You’re right. You’re funny.
She smiled and shifted in her seat. A blue vase appeared on the screen, hovering above her shoulder.
What else? she asked.
What else what?
What you’ve been up to. I want to know.
There isn’t much to tell, I said.
Tell me anyway. Soothe this old heart.
I told her, I’ve made some friends. They’re nice people, studious, driven. A little self-important.
Like you? she asked, then smiled again.
Exactly, I said. Too much like me.
They’re young travelers who never get to go home, always angry and lonely, is what I didn’t tell her, because I thought it would only make her sad.
Her Internet connection was slow, and her face was stuck again, midsentence.
Let me update you on the soap opera, her voice said. Helena fell in love with her boss. She said, Maybe one day you’ll get a job writing soap operas for Rede Globo. If you wrote for Globo, the entire family could watch your work.
The video unfroze, and there she was again. Unimpeded, holding the newspaper.
Have you been reading our paper lately? she asked.
I shook my head.
She related a series of tragedies: an airplane from Malaysia disappeared in the air, a French aircraft fell in Recife, a private jet crashed into a mall in Brasília. A girl was kidnapped. A man lost custody of his son then shot the child, then shot himself.
My mother put the newspaper down and rubbed her eyes.
She said, Look at this mayhem.
I said, I’m so sorry.
Did you hear about the airplane that vanished? she asked.
Yes, I heard.
I said, Mother, I think about you a lot.
Why bother? she asked. Life over there is much more interesting.
I spend hours looking at satellite images of our city on Google Maps, I told her. Hours thinking of that one time we hiked through Parque das Dunas, remember that? When you told me that you were worried that Grandma was losing her appetite.
You said, When I was a child and we didn’t have food at home, my siblings and I would mix cassava flour, water, and sugar and eat it in spoonfuls. You said, We drank so much cod-liver oil that our teeth were stained black.
Well, tell me something I don’t already know, she said.
I bought a bike, I told her. To ride to class.
You shouldn’t. It isn’t safe, she said. Remember when your father fell from one of those? He was wearing his flip-flops and lost his big toe.
She stared into the camera, meaning that she looked straight at me from her living room four thousand miles away.
And how’s Dad? I asked. Has he called for me?
I worry, I said.
Your father’s fine. An ugly vase never breaks.
There’s something I didn’t tell her: That I kept the three postcards my father sent me years ago inside an old diary I’d brought from home. That I still revisited them. A crowded beach in Fortaleza, the São Paulo skyline, the harbor in Rio.
There’s so much I could write, he wrote. The countryside in Rio is so green. He wrote, I did the wire transfer. He wrote, Tell your mom I did the wire transfer.
My mother said, Your father is not worried about you.
I have something I’ve been meaning to show you, she said. Look who’s alive.
The chat box popped up, and I clicked on the link.
It was a story on metal sculptures from the Diário do Nordeste. There was a picture of my father and his wife on a metal bench my father had made. They sat close to each other, his arm wrapped around her shoulders and her hands on her lap, a postcard from their lives.
It was an interview. Artists who work with metal prefer this material over wood or stone because metal is harder to handle. Try making a dent in hard, cold metal. It requires great control. My father said, It makes the piece unique.
She sighed. Her voice was wheezy.
She said, Maybe I’ve never told you that it’s okay to miss your father. I miss my parents too. Even the fights, even changing my mother’s diapers, even hearing her voice go hoarse from old age, her fingers too stiff for her to play the piano.
I like to think of your grandmother sitting on her piano stool, reading sheet music in braille, she said. Her fingertips would go over the score just like when she touched the keys themselves.
She looked out the window.
Look, she said and held up her laptop to show me outside.
Light flooded the screen, and for a moment all I saw was white. She reappeared as a silhouette, and then as her full self again.
It’s getting cloudy, she said. Now I can’t go swimming in the ocean anymore.
The living room in our apartment was dark by then. I could barely see my mother’s face on the screen.
She said, It’s strange to live alone. Without my mother and now without you.
She said, Is it bad that sometimes I forget that you’re not here?
She said, I keep thinking about my mother’s last days. How sometimes she didn’t recognize my voice, that she didn’t remember she was my mother, imagine that. I don’t want to ever forget my daughter.
It must feel lonely, I said. To keep forgetting people.
I thought of how, in the end, Grandma had forgotten me too. She kept touching my face to refresh her memory. She’d sit next to me, and I’d stare into her sunglasses. Then she’d touch my nose, and go over my cheeks, around my eyes, my forehead, then down to my chin. She’d say, Now I remember. Your nose is just like your father’s. Your eyebrows are just like your father’s. You have your mother’s eyes.
My mother said, At least she forgot all the bad things. Who wouldn’t want that? All the things we wish we didn’t know.
Like your aunt Janaina bringing her boyfriend home and having sex with him in the living room while your grandmother played the piano. Because Janaina knew your grandmother couldn’t see.
Like having to wear an ocular prosthesis every day not to scare her grandchildren away.
Like your grandfather hitting her in the head with a hammer until she lost her eyes.
Enough about this, she said. Let’s talk about something that makes us happy. When are you coming to see me?
I told her that I would fly home soon. I’d been saving money and could even take a semester off, if necessary. We could have a conversation in person, without interruptions. I could bring her souvenirs.
I like it here, I said.
I’ve been learning all kinds of things. How astronauts can’t cry in space. How a two-headed snake will fight itself for food. How ghost towns across America were salvaged for goods. How characters in novels fall in love and leave, and fall in love and leave again.
It’s not all for nothing, I swear.
When I finished talking, I realized the call had been frozen. I didn’t know how much of it she’d heard.
I hung up and called her again. When she answered, her webcam didn’t seem to be working.
I never finished telling you about the telenovela, she said. Helena had a miscarriage. Something terrible happened to Neidinha, and Helena was so affected, she lost her child. Her family is devastated.
What a tragedy.
Instead of my mother’s face, all I saw was a halo on top of the black background, the symbol that something was loading.
But let’s talk about you, she said. You never told me when you’re coming home.
Soon, I hope, I spoke closer to the mic. I’ve been saving money.
What did you say? she asked. You’re breaking up again.
Bruna Dantas Lobato was born and raised in Natal, Brazil. She received her MFA in fiction from New York University and is currently an MFA candidate in literary translation at the University of Iowa. Her stories, essays, and translations from the Portuguese have appeared in Harvard Review, BOMB, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. She is a 2018 A Public Space Fellow.
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