(National Prose Contest Winner)
We were living with my grandmother. My parents had separated, though when I spoke to my father, he told me it was temporary. He was in the U.S. working, saving enough money so that we could all be together again. My mother ﬁelded my questions about when we’d go join him and I always wondered why she made excuses when I passed the phone to her so that she could say hi to Dad. “I’m busy cooking our lunch for the week. We’ll talk later,” she’d say as she placed another Tupperware of rice and beans in the freezer.
I learned not to insist. Even though my father was working abroad earning his paychecks in American dollars, his job wasn’t as stable as he would like it to be; he worked as a sound engineer and was constantly touring. The money he sent back home never seemed to be enough and my mother decided she needed to work. It was diﬃcult to ﬁnd a job in Brazil back in the ’80s. I remember how she interviewed for a position as a secretary at my school, then as a phone operator at a nearby hotel, until she ﬁnally got a position as a bank teller somewhere all the way across town. It took three diﬀerent buses to get there and she was constantly late. Afraid of losing her job, and without any money to buy a car, she purchased a motorcycle instead.
On those mornings, before she headed out, I used to run outside and open the low iron gate for her. She walked past me holding the red motorcycle by the handlebars, leaned over, gave me a kiss, and told me to be careful closing the gate. “Don’t give your grandmother a hard time, Ana. Remember what we talked about. She’s old. We’ll have our own place soon.”
I’d watch her from behind the rusty iron patterns as she put one leg over the seat, balancing herself while she twisted her hair up in a ponytail and then placed the helmet over her head. The bike rumbled and I’d see my mother speed away, the red and black helmet diminishing, smaller and smaller, until she was only a speck among the houses and trees that lined our street. I was eight years old and more than anything in the world, I wanted to ride that motorcycle. I’d lean on the gate a while longer watching the empty street and trying to ﬁgure out what she meant by our own place. We already had our own place. Why did she and Dad have to leave it? I missed our little apartment by the beach, where my mom would sit with me at the dining room table, helping me ﬁnish my homework while my dad strummed his guitar, watching us from the sofa.
But I also really liked the new motorcycle and my grandmother’s garden. I’d never had that much space. During those mornings, my grandmother watched us from her rocking chair on the porch and as I walked up the gravel path towards the garden, I’d sometimes catch her crossing herself. When I ﬁrst saw her do that, I thought that maybe she was asking God if she could also ride the bike. But I soon realized she was praying so my mother wouldn’t get into an accident after I overheard her talk to the mailman one morning.
“Anything from the United States, Seu Ángelo?” she’d ask him as he walked over to her seat on the porch.
“Afraid not,” he’d reply as he handed her a stack of envelopes.
“I’ll just keep praying for the Lord to give Rosália some sense,” and she’d cross herself again. “Leaving Rodrigo and then buying that motorcycle, I don’t know what’s gotten into her. You look like you’re melting. Let me get you something to drink.”
Seu Ángelo took the glass of water that my grandmother handed him. “She’ll be ﬁne, Dona Eunice. Soon enough, she’ll get tired of that bike. You’ll see. Once the season changes and it starts raining harder.” And he waved goodbye as he walked over to the next house.
My grandmother hated that bike as much as I loved it, and besides getting my parents back together, her goal during that summer was to turn her tomboyish granddaughter into a young lady.
When we moved in, she’d asked the neighbor’s husband to ﬁnd the sturdiest branch on the mango tree to build a swing for me.
I wanted a tree house, like the ones I’d seen in the American ﬁlms I watched on weekends. When she said it was too dangerous and not proper for a little girl, I climbed the mango tree anyway. After I got tired of watching her walk around the garden looking for me, I waved down at her from one of the lowest branches. She dragged me with her to Mass, not bothering to brush my hair or change my mango-stained shirt and made me say an entire rosary—in penitence, for my mischievousness, and in gratitude, for not having broken my neck.
Her next attempt had been to give me some old pots and wooden spoons, so that I could play house underneath the tree, where she could keep an eye on me. I used the pots to play “witch” and tried to come up with a spell that would transform our lives to what it used to be. I missed singing with my dad and I didn’t like to go to church on Sundays. I wanted to go to the beach with my parents and build sandcastles and eavesdrop on the adults and play in the waves until I felt the salt on my shoulders cake up and pull my skin tight, tight, tight.
But ever since the motorcycle, I preferred to play in the smaller section of the garden, facing the hibiscus bushes and the brick wall that separated our house from the neighbor’s. After my mother went to work, I’d go straight for the tree stump near the wall. I’d look over my shoulder to make sure my grandmother was knitting or praying at the house altar in the far corner of the living room, where I knew she couldn’t see me. With a handle-less pot under one arm, I stood by the tree stump for a moment and in a swift movement, brought one leg over it, sitting on it as if I were on a horse. I’d put the pot over my head, scrape my right foot against the wood, arms stretched out in front of me, making what I believed to be motor noises.
I imagined many adventures during those mornings before my grandmother would call out that lunch was ready and that I had to get ready for school. On my lucky days, she was too busy to snatch the pot away from my head and ground me for playing Street Hawk, my favorite TV show and make-believe game.
I loved to sit on the remains of that old tree with my eyes closed, the heat rising from the soil and the fresh scent of grass mingling with those from the hibiscus bush. I’d get on my own motorcycle and help Jessie Mach ﬁght crime on the streets of L.A. Sometimes I was a circus attraction, risking my life every night as I rode my bike inside the globe of death. When I missed my father, I was able to catch up with his tour bus in a matter of seconds; all I had to do was to sit on my magic bike.
Even though I cherished the real and the imaginary bike, that love was tinged with a hint of shame. My mother was no longer like the other mothers. She not only rode a motorcycle, but worse, she was a working mother. That’s what I overheard the neighbor say and I soon began noticing the subtle diﬀerences between myself and the other girls in my class. I was the only one not wearing pigtails, and even though my grandmother tried to do my hair, her arthritis got in the way and one pigtail always came out much higher than the other. I liked it, but she refused to let me leave the house looking like that.
In school, we had recess at three o’clock and ate our snacks. After my mother became a bank teller, I had to wait ten minutes in line to buy a coxinha, the chicken croquettes I used to pester my father to get me, and that I was now growing tired of. My classmates eyed me with jealousy as I stood in line waiting formy turn. I clutched the ﬁve cruzeiro bill in my sweaty palm, surrounded by older kids in the ﬁfth and sixth grades as I tried to look invisible. All I wanted was the usual piece of guava marmalade, cheese, and the fresh squeezed juice my mother used to pack into my lunch box.
One day, my grandmother saw me in the kitchen clutching my empty Street Hawk lunch box. “What’s the matter? Are you hungry, Ana?” she asked. I shook my head, looking down at the patterns on the tiled kitchen ﬂoor.
“Well, if you want me to make your lunch, all you need to do is ask,” she said, “I told Rosália that she should save that lunch money, but she keeps saying you love your coxinhas so much.”
She opened the drawer where we kept the silverware. “Get the bread in the fridge,” she said. I watched as she slowly cut it for me, her knuckles turning white and her face twisting in a knot of pain.
“It’s ok, grandma. The lunch at school is really good. I just missed looking at my Street Hawk lunch box, that’s all. See?” and I pointed at the black motorcycle as I kissed her.
The days when there was a birthday party in my classroom were the most miserable. My mother was no longer a presence among the other women who brought snacks and helped decorate the room. Their chatter and kisses had once pleased me, but when they came over to rub my hair, or oﬀer me more soda, I just wanted them to go away.
In the evenings, when I heard the barking of the motor approaching the house, I’d once again run outside and open the gate. My mother leaped oﬀ the bike, still wearing her helmet and gave me a hug. I begged her to lift me up on the seat of the parked bike, but she told me we had to wait for the motor to cool oﬀ ﬁrst, so that I wouldn’t accidentally brush up against it and burn myself. That was our code for wait until your grandmother falls asleep, and I could barely contain my excitement as I sat at the dining room table, willing my grandmother to hurry up and ﬁnish her soup so I could play on the real bike.
After she kissed us goodnight and went to her bedroom, my mother gestured for quiet by placing her index ﬁnger in front of her lips, and we would slip out to the backyard where the motorcycle was parked. My mother would put me on top of the black leather seat, and as I held the handlebars, I’d tell her all about my imaginary circuit from that morning.
One afternoon, it must have been around Holy Week, because I was sitting on the linoleum ﬂoor of my classroom coloring the dress for a cutout doll of the Virgin Mary. I couldn’t choose only one color, so I decided to use all twenty-four shades in the colored pencil box. I inspected the doll once more and thought this would be a pretty present for my grandmother, since she was always talking about the Virgin. We had been living with her for six months, and she’d given up on getting me to play house and wear pink. She even gave me a Street Hawk sticker book for my birthday and let me dress up as Jessie Mach for Carnaval. Ever since then, our relationship was blossoming.
Halfway through my fashion project for the Virgin Mary, I heard my name and my classmate pointed at the door. I couldn’t believe it. My mother was standing beneath the doorway, helmet in hand, talking to my teacher. Miss Marcela walked over to me and said I could leave early. I was almost done with my coloring and asked if I could take it with me and ﬁnish it at home. I wanted to give it to my grandmother.
She hesitated. “Go ask your mother,” she said.
My mother nodded, looking away. Miss Marcela placed the doll inside my folder. She looked preoccupied so I gave her a hug after I ﬁnished putting my pencils away. I was surprised when she hugged my mother too.
My mother took my hand. I noticed she had her helmet and we were going to the parking lot. A thought gained strength and became clearer, and it was then that I truly understood what it meant to hope. And so, I hoped with all the power of an eight-year- old. Then, I saw the bike. It was really happening. I was ﬁnally going to ride it. I waited quietly as my mother unleashed a smaller helmet from the handlebar. When she turned around, she began to say something, but in my excitement, I began to jump up and down and squeal for her to hurry up. She looked at me a moment longer, then smiled.
“You’ve been waiting a long time for this haven’t you?” When I screamed a loud yes, she stroked my hair. “Ok, let’s ride the bike home.”
I tilted my head up slightly, closed my eyes, and waited for the helmet to touch my head, like a queen-to-be, anticipating the much coveted crown. She picked me up and placed me on the seat and in a sudden movement, sat right behind me.
I tried to calm the beating of my heart by adjusting myself on the seat, gripping the handlebars tighter and sliding the visor up and down, as I waited for the much-known ﬁrst barks of the motor. I remembered the key turning. I think she let me turn it. Then I felt the bike shudder and the ﬁrst acceleration was like an invisible hand pushing my chest ever so slightly. I jerked back and tightened my grip on the handlebars as we left the parking lot.
I marveled at the world from this new angle: houses, cars, and people, faded into colorful horizontal lines, like the ones I drew swiftly moments ago, when I held the colored pencils tight in my hand. I kept the visor up. I had never felt the wind play that way with my hair, or heard the real sound of its voice. I looked back and smiled at my mother.
When we got home, we walked over to the tree stump, and as we sat under the shade of the hibiscus bush, she told me grandma had gone to heaven shortly after I went to school. She stroked my hair as we both cried and then she talked about heaven. Dusk was falling. My mother gave me some old colored pencils. I sat at the dining room table and colored the cutout doll’s dress as my mother drank some coﬀee. When the phone rang, she jumped up and I heard her say my father’s name as she sat in the kitchen, but soon, all I could hear was her hushed voice. They talked for a long time. I heard her sob, then laugh, then sob again. I ﬁnished my coloring and placed the paper Virgin on the altar and with a rosary in hand, said a prayer in penitence for having ridden the motorcycle and another in gratitude, for the phone conversation that was taking place in the kitchen.
A week after the funeral, my mother sold the motorcycle and we moved to the U.S. My father never mentioned or asked about that summer. My mother never rode a motorcycle again. I’d sometimes catch her opening the car window all the way down, leaning her head out a little, complaining about the heat. My father wouldn’t say anything, but as I sat in the back seat, I sensed the car accelerating and I’d see her reﬂection from the side mirror: eyes closed, a silent smile, and wisps of dark hair dancing across her face as we moved forward.