Her Borders Become Her



She had been dead nearly a decade before she sought me out. I was in my late twenties when she first came to me; then, again and again over a period of several years, whenever I came home to visit and always in the middle of the night as I slept in my old room. Before it was mine, it was hers. In the recurring dream or vision, I opened my eyes to darkness and knew I was not alone. She stood in the far corner by the closet, waiting for something. The air between us, a conduit—even from across the room, I felt her body tingling my skin. You don’t always have to see a thing to know it exists.

During this time, I couldn’t look into the mirror that hung on that closet door without first thinking I might see her reflection there. It had something to do with seeing and with not wanting to see. I knew then our story was not finished, and that I would tell it—although I didn’t yet understand what the story was or that telling hers would lead to my own.

The truth is that I’d bullied her, when I was fifteen and she was in her seventies, and it was weighing on me. Before that, she had bullied me, too, when I was newly an immigrant on the cusp of teenhood.

She was my uncle’s—my adopted father’s—mother. I should have called her Grandmother, the only one I ever knew, but I always called her Belle.



Belmira was her birth name. Before we were rivals, we were friends. In some ways, our stories are the same.

I first met Belle when I was four years old, when my parents and I had traveled from our home in Portugal to the United States to visit my mother’s older sister and her husband, the couple who would later take me in. They lived in a small farm town in Northern California, near the Sacramento Valley—an incomprehensibly flat place, where every house was neatly organized on wide streets with manicured lawns. Where I came from, only foreigners and rich people who lived behind tall gates had carpets of grass like that, kept pretty to be looked at. My own native home was on a rocky hill of coastal pines within the Sintra forest, ancestral family land which we shared with my father’s siblings, the long sliver of the Atlantic wrapping around the horizon.

I don’t remember Belle from that trip, although the pictures in our family album show that she was there that Christmas, that she placed her hands on my shoulders at least once, and that she gave me a doll with yellow hair and a blue wool dress.

I began to see a lot more of Belle when I was seven. That year, my aunt sent my parents money to purchase my airline ticket, and I traveled from Lisbon to San Francisco with my passport dangling from my neck. During that summer, away from my parents, no one screamed and no one fought. No one said they were going to leave. I stopped wetting the bed and having nightmares. I must have been the picture of adaptability, because I went on to spend every summer in California with my aunt and uncle until the summer I turned eleven and did not return home to my parents.

Belle and I were friends during those early summers. She lived nearby with her sister-in-law, Madalena, then. First brought together through their marriages to brothers, the two women had been brought together again through their widowhood. My guardians told me that Belle was living with Madalena, who was older, to care for her, but each helped maintain the other. Although they said Belle was “better,” I heard speak of a time when she had been sick—coo coo, maluca, they called it. They didn’t have the language to name her illness, only that it had its seasons, surfacing during times of change, like when my uncle was born, when her husband died, and, later, when she was moved back home with us—at those times, she needed caretakers, too.

This was how my aunt had met my American uncle. She was a new arrival in California, just a few months off the plane. She spoke only a few words of English and had never provided mental health support to anyone before, but she was Portuguese (as was Belle’s family), and that had been enough of a recommendation. She moved in with Belle and her recently divorced son so that she could better care for the woman who got up in the middle of the night to stuff her mouth with loaves of bread until she could hardly breathe, the woman who was so medicated she walked into walls and stared into them as if she saw hidden worlds in the flowered wallpaper. My aunt and uncle married within the year.

During those summer visits when my guardians had to work, they’d drop me off with Belle at Madalena’s mint-green ranch house flanked by acres of cornfields. Back then, Belle and I would walk to the edge of town to The Orange for root beer floats and cheeseburgers. The restaurant, a squat roadside hamburger stand with a giant hollow orange in the dirt parking lot, had once belonged to her family. It was where Belle had spent thirty years—a lifetime—taking orders, bussing tables, telling the young waitresses how to do their jobs because they were mostly “lazy bums.” She had once managed a business. Now she managed a household for two aging widows and a parrot.

We didn’t speak the same language, really. At the time, my English was only what I had learned in school. Her Portuguese was an island language rubbed smooth by time and distance. The host of the mother tongue in her home had been her Azorean mother from Terceira, who died when Belle was nine. Belle’s father was a Portuguese immigrant, too, but his first language was buried deep when he remarried an American. Still, there was an easy mutual understanding between us during those years. Although we depended more on our bodies for speaking, there is one thing I remember Belle saying in English—she used to call me Smart Aleck. At the time, I didn’t know what it meant, but her face told me it was a term of endearment.

But Smart Aleck was also what Belle called Dolly, Madalena’s giant parrot, a green and yellow bird who, with her bulbous curved beak and drooping eyelids, resembled her owner. Dolly was also a widow. The bird had belonged to Madalena’s bachelor son, who had died before I entered the scene. Myth had it that he had smuggled the parrot home from South America in his pocket. She lived in a huge black cage, which Belle rolled around the house so that she wouldn’t have to be in the same room with the bird. The two did not get along.

Belle was serious about cleaning, and Dolly’s cage was on her daily regimen. Dolly was terrified of Belle rummaging through her cage and of the water she sprayed at her with the kitchen sink sprayer to “show her who’s boss.” To retaliate, Dolly mimicked Belle as loudly as her tiny bird gullet allowed (“Smart Aleck, Smart Aleck, Smart Aleck”), swinging from the top of the cage by her beak and kicking her bell as hard as she could whenever her adversary walked into the room. Madalena would eventually mediate by covering Dolly’s cage with a blanket to bring peace. I wondered if Belle was jealous of the attention Madalena gave the bird, of the bond they shared. Later, when Belle came after me with as much conviction as she had gone after Dolly, I would wonder if there was some characteristic the bird and I shared in Belle’s eyes—something she believed subtracted from her.     

During those early years, when Belle wasn’t vacuuming several times a day, she was outside hosing off the sidewalks and plant beds in one of her many flowered housecoats with snap buttons. I spent most of those valley-hot afternoons in the coolness of the house. Dolly would eventually grow quiet in her darkened cage, and Madalena and I would sit on the stiff green couch watching Sally Jessy Raphael and eating bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches on tin television trays.

Madalena moved much, much slower than her sister-in-law. Often wearing a sheer scarf over her shoulder-length white hair, she liked to speak to me in her broken Azorean Portuguese. Not broken, but perhaps reconstructed. Her gentle stutters took their time, and I liked to pull at the strings of her sentences and turn them into questions she couldn’t always answer (“How old were you?” “Were you sad?” “Where is your mom?”). Her Portuguese was different from mine, molded and helped along by the English she was accustomed to. It was the language of one who has been away from home a long time. My own tongue was still firmly planted where my roots lived. I was not yet an immigrant then.



Several years later, Madalena moved to another town to live with her daughter. They sold the ranch, and Belle returned to the same house she had first moved to as a hopeful newlywed, grateful to escape her stepmother’s heavy hand and cruel mouth. They say her father was eager to marry her off so that his new wife wouldn’t finish her. Belle’s young bridal home was where I now lived, too, sent away from the front lines of my own family and adapting to a new school, new friends, and a new language. At twelve, I was one year an immigrant.

The summer before, in my childhood room with my suitcase already packed for another summer abroad, my mother sat me down on my bed, knelt before me, and asked me if I wanted to stay in California. “Do you want to go to school over there and be anything you want, or do you want to stay here and grow up to clean toilets like me?”

These were likely not her exact words, although I clearly remember the “cleaning toilets” clause. For years I’ve tried to understand what happened in that room, the choice placed before that girl that altered so many lives—the question that felt like an appeal. I’d felt the pull of California for some time by then: from my aunt, mostly, who had no children of her own and often asked me about staying with her. Didn’t I like being away from my parents’ chaos? Wasn’t I happier with her?


That fall, I began fifth grade at the local elementary school and moved into Belle’s old room. Until, that is, she moved back in. The woman who returned from the ranch took issue with my presence, her demeanor increasingly harsh. But this change was gradual and not so easy to see at first, because I still thought of her as my friend. She still took me shopping for clothes at the little vintage shop on Main Street; she still let me rummage through her mahogany trunk and try on fancy hats with netting that fell over my lashes. And even though I now towered over her, she still grabbed for my forearm when we crossed the street. My friend was still there, but she was often possessed by another, sharper self.

I see now that we should have been allies, but my presence angered her. Or that I was no longer seven, eight, and nine angered her. I didn’t know which. I just knew it was my fault. She’d pick on me, calling out what I wore, how I fixed my hair, and my English—my fragile attempts at assimilating—in demeaning ways. When my aunt bought me a secondhand piano, Belle berated her for wasting her money and for taking up all the room in the entryway. Like a jealous sibling, Belle criticized any favor my aunt showed me, declaring that her kindness would make me a “spoiled brat.”

One of the most memorable ways she expressed her anger at my presence was with her early-morning cleaning rituals. After Belle took her bedroom back, I slept in the living room, on the pull-out sofa. Many mornings, so early it was still dark, she wheeled the vacuum in to where I slept and frantically vacuumed around my island bed, running it up against the couch with such force that the tea sets and porcelain shoes she’d collected rattled threateningly on their glass shelves. “Get up, you lazy bum,” she yelled over the revving machine, the vacuum echoing her anger. Eventually, my second mother would wander in half asleep, and they’d argue: Belle insistent that it was not too early, calling us all lazy and me spoiled; my guardian gently attempting to calm her mother-in-law with hums and whispers until Belle agreed to go back to her room and wait until sunrise to resume her cleaning. She always left the vacuum behind, a final act of defiance. I can see it standing there, olive green with its matching flowered bag.

I didn’t feel anything at all during these early-morning assaults, which I witnessed from somewhere above my body, hesitant to drop into the waking world. I couldn’t absorb the meaning of another person who wanted me once but now didn’t.


When did my body become a room I could leave at will? When did I learn to hide in plain sight, even from myself? I learned how to leave my body before I had language to protect me, when my parents’ fighting reached pitches so loud I could no longer hear their voices. My body has been kind to me in this way. It has its own memories and practices a wily survivor’s loyalty in the secrets it keeps. But some always slip through.

From those early years in Portugal, before I was an immigrant, my body remembers the coolness on my cheek from the wall behind my bedroom door, where I hid, as flat as a sheet. My body remembers the stiffness and high-pitched creak of the door to the armoire where we kept our winter coats when I shut myself within, the itchy roughness of my father’s wool coat on the back of my neck—and my comfort in that roughness, because it meant I was unseen and couldn’t see what they were doing to each other. My body remembers the tightness in my chest, in my throat, when I came between their fighting, my arms shielding her. My body remembers being held by another body barely bigger than my own, my cousin who stayed with us for some time, and feeling less safe because her embrace made it difficult to leave my body behind. Over and over my mother would tell my father we were leaving him. What I didn’t understand at the time was that she would never leave him and he would never leave her. I would be the one to leave.

I remember other, happier things from my childhood before the United States, too. There was joy in my family circle, cousins I loved like sisters. There were moss-covered rocks I climbed to glimpse the glittering ocean across the rooftops; puffy, sugar-dusted pastries that filled my cheeks with sunshine; the warmth of my mother’s neck and the sticky sweetness of her perfume; my father squeezing my hand so tight that it hurt in a good way. And the loss of these things was so unbearable to me during those first years in America that, despite my removal to safety, I continued to escape my body as much to avoid the pain of the goodness I’d lost as I did to forget the violence I’d escaped.

So, on those mornings broken by the roar of the vacuum, my body did not register Belle’s screams or her insults, even as I knew they were meant for me. My body could not hold any more.


Toward the end of the summer before high school, as I was surging toward fifteen, Belle swung back toward the other side of her illness. One early morning, when the rest of us were away, she fell while gardening in the backyard. She called out for help, but no one came, so she lay there on the dirt near the kale and the tomatoes and waited.

How long does it take the body to return to a time before speech? She couldn’t talk when her son found her. She was like a child, he told us later, when he described how he picked her up like a baby, how she sobbed into his neck. He thought she’d had a stroke, but the doctors found only a break in her right arm. But there were unseen breaks there, too, because that was the day the lucid, and sometimes cruel, woman broke away.

I had heard many stories of Belle’s illness, of the various “treatments” she’d received over the years, which included private and state psychiatric homes and multiple exiles from her child. I’d heard that, at just a few months old, my uncle was sent to live with Madalena, where he remained until he was a toddler. Of this particular period, I’d heard say that Belle had hurt the baby. “The baby made her crazy,” my aunt said, explaining that her body had been ready for a baby but her mind had not. I wonder how ready her body was, at sixteen, for her husband, a man two decades her senior.

Around the time of Belle’s fall, my aunt began working nights. My uncle was also away in the evenings. He owned a business in town and slept there most nights so that he could work late. I stayed home with Belle and began taking care of her. We all thought that once her arm healed, she would return to her old self, that she would leave the childlike, wide-eyed woman behind. But Belle was much easier to love like this.

I helped her shower, standing nearby while the water poured over her, and washed her hair and body. I became familiar with her softness, her long breasts, her wilting thighs, her difficulty balancing when I powdered her with her favorite Jean Naté talc. I became intimate with her smells. I anticipated her aversion to standing, to walking, to talking. “It’s the medication,” they told me.

And as Belle became more depressed, I became more grounded in the world of a teen. As Belle increasingly retreated into her room to sleep, I explored new, unsupervised freedoms. But a child who hasn’t learned her borders shouldn’t have freedoms too soon—or at least not without the guidance of an adult, and this new Belle was a child. Although in her illness she tried to watch out for me, in the end, she did what she was told.

“Aren’t you tired? Why don’t you go to your room?” I’d suggest when I had friends over at night. And she went without hesitation, without a word.

This is how it began, my awareness of my own power. A reversal. I had it and she didn’t. Soon, other factors would tip the scale further.



When I started high school, I inexplicably earned the attention of an older boy. When he learned that I was unsupervised in the evenings, he began to visit on the weekends with his friends, before going out to parties. I invited my girlfriend, sent Belle to her room, and we all sat in the living room and drank the Bud Lights the boys carried into parties like shiny accessories. When I’d hear Belle get up, I’d hurry to meet her in the hallway.

“Is someone here? I heard boys,” she’d say, looking worried.

“No one’s here. We’re just watching movies,” I’d insist as I led her back to her room. “Go back to bed and rest.”

Somewhere near the end of his visits, this boy would pull me into the bedroom by the wrist, the arm, my lower back, where he whispered and grabbed in the dark until I pulled us back into the light, to his friends and mine, to send him away. It was a game—how much further he could get, pushing that boundary, getting me to give just a little and using gained ground to push further the next time. Then one night he went much further than I wanted, but I let him. I had been holding him off for weeks, and it felt my time had run out. The dark made it easier to unsee, to leave the room of my body below, to focus instead on the rosary hanging from the bed, ticking time and my body further into the distance.

After he left, I walked into Belle’s room next door. I waited to hear her breathing, the measured breathing of sleep. In the near dark, I could see her eyes were closed, but it sounded like she was holding her breath.

“Belle, are you awake?”

“No,” she whispered.


That same night, this boy will go on to attend our high school football game. After, he will invite some friends over to his house, including another girl whom he will pull into his room by the wrist, the arm, her lower back—and he will close the door. A girl he will say wanted it, a girl who will never come back to our school again. Her silence will leave behind a question I will carry with me always, a stone of complicity in my belly: What if I had known my borders?

His friends will believe him; and perhaps because they can’t turn their rage on her, they will turn it on me. One girl in particular will taunt me for years, marking me with “Slut” in shouts down school hallways, across the quad, at parties. I will accept these marks. I will believe their words. Because what kind of girl just lets someone in like that, like her body is indebted? Like her borders are not her own?

Later, when I think back on that night, I will imagine Belle differently. I will imagine her being the fiery woman from the early years at Madalena’s house, who made a nemesis out of a parrot. I will imagine her rising at the sound of us drinking and laughing and sending those boys away. I will imagine her charging into the bedroom where he pressed down on me, and beating him out of the house with a broom.

But that night, as I stood in the dark waiting for her to speak, she kept her eyes and mouth shut. So there we were, both awake with our eyes closed.



“She was terrified of water,” Madalena’s daughter tells me, when I visit to speak with her about Belle. “My mother had to coax her into the bath. She thought something was there waiting to take her.” The woman before me is now 98—a few decades older than her mother was when I spent time at the ranch with the two widows and the parrot.

Nearly twenty years after her initial hauntings, Belle finds me again. I am in the early years of motherhood to two girls, which has altered my seeing, my awareness of the ghosts I carry: this is how I explain her return, as in, maybe she never left me at all. She approaches when I’m alone in my home, and always in the daytime. Her presence feels cautionary, her body a warning just out of sight, a feeling I experience from the corner of my eye that I can’t grasp head-on. And even though I haven’t thought of our story in many years, everything I write now leads to that time, to her. The words “primary site” come to mind, as if in answer to a riddle I haven’t yet verbalized. As though she is pointing the way to something that must be seen.

I speak with as many of Belle’s relatives as I can, asking questions while feeling like an intruder. I tell them I am writing about her, but I cannot shake the feeling of invasiveness. I cannot negotiate the contradictions. Everyone has a different story. Still, I try to grab at fragments of her, to see through the veil of others’ attachments, of their guilt, of their own redactions (and to see through my own). How all our feelings about our place in her life shape the story we tell.

She has become an erasure poem, scattered illuminations that don’t directly answer my deepest question: Where is her center?

Mine feels like an urgency to bring her to light. To speak her. To give her a body. Will locating her story help me tell my own? Because these things I carry, which I can’t yet see, feel like a landmine waiting for just the right pressure. And finding that language is the only act of preservation I can offer my daughters. Because love is not protection.

“She was at Napa,” Madalena’s daughter tells me during my visit, contradicting other claims that she was never institutionalized at Napa State Hospital. “But only for a few months. They put her there after he was born,” she says of my uncle. “But then Mom went to visit and took her out right away when she saw what the place was like.”

I imagine a young Madalena full of love and protection for her friend, taking that drive to Napa before it became fashionable to go to Napa. I see her talking to Belle’s husband about the place, expressing her doubts. Did he defer to her? Women’s business, he might have thought. Perhaps that Madalena was then caring for their baby gave her agency over her friend.

As I listen to this gentle woman piece together memory, Dolly, the parrot, watches me from across the room. She is still alive, a witness. I mention my disbelief at Dolly’s lifespan. She has outlived two owners, and it’s likely she will outlive her present one. I hear again about how the bird was smuggled from somewhere in South America, carried in her brother’s jacket pocket. Some myths won’t die. My friend seems tired, and her nurse is hovering, so I walk over to Dolly’s cage. She pauses her pecking at the bells and shuffles closer on her perch, giving me a sideways look. I wish she would speak about what her bird eyes have seen. Does she recognize that girl in me, or perhaps remember my smell? As she turns her bright yellow head to face me, something about her bird gaze makes me choke—and maybe I’m imagining it because I want to be recognized from another life; because here we are, still. But Dolly cannot tell me what she saw in me then or now. She cannot say anything about these long years she has lived. They will remain untellable.

I take a picture with Dolly to match the one I have from 1985, to document that we survived.


During my search for Belle’s story, I remember the diaries she kept through the years. I found her notebooks once in her trunk; every entry started with the same two sentences, “The weather today was—” and “Joe and I—.” No interiority. Nothing of her child other than he was there. I think about how she had to hand over her boy to another mother. Did she believe it when she was told it was for the best that her sister-in-law would take the baby? Did she feel hollowed by his absence? Or did the medications silence the grief? I think of my own mother and our house of redactions. Did my aunt convince my mother that she would be a better, safer mother to me—that it was for the best she let me go? Did the sleeping pills my first mother took throughout my childhood and decades into her old age silence her loss? I see her packing my suitcase to send me away, a chance at another life, at protection. Motherhood as endangerment. Motherhood as mourning.

I’ve asked my uncle about his mother’s notebooks—maybe if I read them now, I could fill in the missing pieces. But he doesn’t remember. I don’t believe him, so I keep asking. He might be persuaded if I speak enough. These days, I believe that speaking conjures.

One day, he hands me an armful of binders and notebooks, Belle’s recipe books. I set them on the table, and my heart swells when I spot a black book that looks like a journal. But no, another recipe book, copyright 1933. It details how to throw the perfect party for your child, how to be the most elegant hostess, how to charm your husband’s boss with a Baked Alaska—with chapter titles like “It’s a Wise Woman who Knows Her Baking Rules” and “Recipes for Luncheon with Bridge.” Inside the front cover, I glimpse Belle’s dainty cursive handwriting in pencil, a recipe for Royal Icing and another for Lemon Meringue Pie. I read through them closely, desperate to find any clue.

The Royal Icing recipe is one long run-on sentence, with measurements folded into the text, like a held breath ending with “mix in 1 teaspoon of lemon extract and the few drops of the food coloring you have chosen.” That you wants my attention. Maybe it’s because, unlike all the other letters that lean so far forward they look to be running off the page, this you stands erect. It wants to be apart. You have chosen.

On the opposite page, the lemon pie recipe is written as if copied from a magazine. List of ingredients followed by short sentences split by action. No you. Still, convinced the recipe holds knowledge of its writer, I plan to bake the pie even though I don’t care for lemon meringue. But I never will.

I look through the binders, too—collages of cut-out recipes from magazines. Salmon Mousse, Lemon Chiffon Cake, Waldorf Salad, Deviled Eggs, Cottage Cheese Crab Mold, Cheeseburger Loaf, Lady Baltimore Cake—there are hundreds of magazine clippings in these pages. I finger the jagged edges hoping some of her is still there, listening for a message.

“She liked collecting recipes,” I muse to my uncle, who stands over me as I turn page after page of recipes and fading ads.

“She did,” he says. “She’d spend hours cutting them out of magazines and newspapers.” He pauses and it’s heavy, like he hasn’t thought of her this way in a long time. “But she hated to cook,” he says finally, chuckling.

I look up at him.

“She hated it.” He shrugs. “Dad did the cooking in the house and at the restaurant. She did the cleaning.”

I look at the binders in front of me and see their silence in a new light. I see Belle sitting at the same kitchen table where I sit now, bent over a newly arrived issue of Good Housekeeping. She flips through the shiny pages, her scissors ready. She takes in image after image of smiling women with red lips and starched aprons and dresses, standing in their tiny heels in their gleaming kitchens over their joyful children. One woman with immaculately coiffed hair leans over her husband at the dinner table holding a plump, golden turkey. The husband looks at the wife happily—with pride. The boy and girl at the table look up adoringly to the mother with wide smiles.            

This is what Woman looks like. This is what Family looks like. This is a Wife. This is Happy.

I imagine the diary she didn’t write: 

I like the sound of scissors cutting paper. I like filling empty pages with beautiful dreams. Someday, I will be the wife who can be still enough in her own body to prepare the perfect meal, the mother who can sit with my son in my arms for a long time without having to do or say anything. And when that day comes, I’ll be ready. I am trying. Every day I try.

These weren’t her recipe books. These were her textbooks. These were her dream journals.



During those years in high school when my own body was being tossed aside and marked, I carried myself home bound like a fist, tight as a spring, driven by a rage I could not name or control. I found Belle’s vulnerability unbearable. Her presence pressed on the unspeakable past and present, filling me with shame. Something about her weakness was so familiar and revolting. I latched on like a predator.

“Go back to bed.” “Go to sleep.” “Stop shaking.” “You smell—take a bath.”

I’d pull her along, her body moving uneasily, when she didn’t move fast enough out of my sight.

“Go for a walk.” If I were an animal, I might have growled.

I can see my fifteen-year-old self so clearly, taking her by the hand—her fingers, stiff from the arthritis, no longer closed around mine. I lead her to the front door. That shaking hand rising to push her phantom glasses up on her nose.

“Go!” I slam the door behind her. From the living room window, I watch her shuffle down the driveway in her faded housedress. I hear a girl in a distant room within me urging me to run out and take her hand, to tell her I’m sorry. But I close door after door between us until I no longer hear that girl, until I no longer feel her grief.

There were moments, too, when something sparked in Belle and she snapped back, “No, you don’t tell me what to do,” and her waking up would shift us back into our proper places of adult and child. I’d back down and apologize. Then there were the times when Belle apologized to me. “I’m sorry,” she’d say. “I’m sorry.” Was she thinking of our past, or was she perhaps sorry for still existing in that body?

Some of my friends laughed at my unkindness, and the kind ones asked me why I was so mean. I was ashamed. And then defensive. She had done it to me first. She was the mean one. But what I thought of myself was, Coward. For taking my rage out on my friend; for not standing up, for not speaking out on behalf of my body and hers—the girl who never returned to school; for continuing to laugh at that boy’s jokes (and those of others like him) in the aftermath of his trespassing, because I’d rather be a liar than an outcast.

This is how we are destroyed.


Belle died when I was twenty. I remember her face when I looked into her casket, the smoothness of her cheeks and the pink of her lipstick that made me recall her younger days at the ranch when she made herself up to take me shopping in town. The lipsticks in cylindrical golden-ridged cases she kept in that small vanity drawer in the bathroom smelled like baby powder. Even now I can feel their powdery thickness on my lips.

I can’t remember now how I felt when she died. I must have cried, but maybe I didn’t. They tell me I read at her service, but I don’t remember. I put her death aside. I’d become so good at that by then.

She had asked for me a lot in the year leading up to her death. I made the hour drive to the senior home to see her, carrying my shame in my belly filled with stones. I tried to press it away as I spoke to her, the years of cruelty between us. I held her hands and put lotion on them and on her feet and legs. I combed her hair. I cleaned her glasses. We talked about what she ate for lunch, who had visited her, the classes I was taking in college, the weather. But never about my secrets she carried. Never about our crimes against each other.

Looking back, I remember one afternoon, in my first few years in America, during the time Belle was against me and before I became her bully. I was helping her take down the curtains for cleaning. We weren’t speaking. I was sulking and upset; she might have just cut me down. But out of our silence, she suddenly asked me if I missed my mother. I offered a guarded “Yes,” surprised by her tenderness. And then Belle started to cry and embraced me. It was the only time I saw her weep and the only time she held me as a mother might hold her child. She said, “I know. It’s so hard, isn’t it?” And she said more that I couldn’t take in; I knew only that it was all in Portuguese, our shared mother tongue. She spoke to me in her language of loss from when she was seven, eight, and nine and motherless. And I let myself fall into that body, into the grief of losing my mother and my child’s body. For a time, we were the same.


Fátima Policarpo is a Portuguese American writer. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, and Ninth Letter. Her work has been supported by grants from the Luso-American Foundation and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund; and by fellowships from the DISQUIET International Literary Program, which she attended as a 2016 Fellow, and the Vermont Studio Center, where she resided as a 2018 NEA Fellow. She lives in Northern California with her family.

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Her Borders Become Her

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Truck on the highway

Lightning Talk on I-90

I was somewhere outside Rome when I saw the grief truck. Seriously? I said aloud, incredulous, to no one. Incredulous, and a little giddy: I couldn’t help but be delighted by signs, even bad ones; I wanted, more than any particular message, evidence of any message at all.

Summer People

I wanted so badly to see that house, those dunes, the cold, deep water as our natural habitat instead of what I always kind of knew it was: a brief, bright accident of place and time and money, one that left me imprinted for life on a species to which I didn’t belong.