Carnaval, Upstate

By Cristina Hartmann

When I told the other kids at school about Carnaval, they didn’t know what it was. Lisa asked if there were clowns and tilt-a-whirls. Missy gave me a funny look when I told her about the dancing and bright costumes, saying that it sounded weird. It’s not. It’s better than birthdays and Christmases. Maybe I’m explaining it wrong.

I looked it up in an encyclopedia to get it right. It said: The Brazilian Carnival (Portuguese: Carnaval) is an annual celebration before the Roman Catholic observance of Lent. The practice of merrymaking and wearing masked costumes removes usual behavioral constraints and subverts traditional hierarchies. This serves as a final catharsis before the asceticism characteristic of Lent.

That doesn’t sound right, either. I don’t know what they mean about the whole subversion thing. All I know is that Carnaval means happiness and new beginnings. You dance when it’s cold and gray outside as you wait for spring to come. I guess it’s different in Brazil since it’s summer there and winter here.

My nose hairs went all stiff from the cold. Definitely below twenty, maybe even in the single digits. It’s February, the worst month in upstate New York. No more holidays like Christmas and New Year’s to make the cold fun. Even the snow is ugly now, all brown and clumpy from the snowplows. That’s why Carnaval is so wonderful. Because nothing else is.

I stamped my boots, thinking of everything I had to tell Mãe and Papai. About the pool and library at school. About how Missy is my best friend now. About how there is a Deaf-world and a hearing-world. But not about Frank. That I’ll keep to myself.

The warmth covered my face when I opened the door. Mãe turned, her mouth lifting up in a smile and her lipstick-red mouth moved. I tried to catch the words but missed them as she hugged me.

I must’ve gotten worse at lip-reading. I kept thinking about it, like rewinding a tape over and over in my head. Then I got it. “You’re finally home! Tell us everything!” was what she said. Pretty sure, anyway.

Papai’s glasses bumped my head as he hugged us both. I breathed in his smell of laundry detergent as their warmth surrounded me. Papai looked the same, with his big dorky glasses and the blue button-down shirts he bought in bulk from K-Mart. His chest rumbled as if he was talking. Sometimes he did that, forgetting that I couldn’t hear him.

I told them how much I missed them, and how wonderful yet strange school was. They stared at me in that confused way they had when someone spoke English too fast.

It’s funny how much you forget when you go away, even for a few weeks. (I usually come home on weekends. I went to Missy’s house a few weeks ago, and Papai had to go to a conference for two weeks.) Now I remember that I always sign English or use my voice here. There are two ways to sign. You can sign more English in a line where words are broken up to show grammar and stuff like that. Or you can sign ASL, which is like dancing where you move in all directions. I’m learning how to sign ASL better, which Missy says will make me more Deaf since it’s my real language.

I tried again, more English this time. That didn’t work either, so I spoke, twisting my thick tongue and trying to breathe right. “I missed you,” I finally said. I forgot how hard talking is.

They understood and hugged me again.

When I inhaled to talk more, they turned their heads and Papai walked away. I was about to tell them to pay attention—using big signs, which is our version of yelling—until I saw Papai talking on the phone. The phone must’ve rung. Some of the anger stayed. I wished they would tell me more about stuff like this. They always forget.

It took a while for Mãe to fingerspell the caller’s name, her fingers clumsy and slow. She wasn’t practicing, which meant she would forget everything. My hands fell away when I saw the dried blood around her nails. She must be working extra hours, washing dishes in piping-hot water and scrubbing floors. I just got home, so I didn’t want to get mad.

Missy told me that it’s important to introduce yourself properly. It helps people understand who I am and how to talk to me. Let’s see if I get this right.

My name is Marina. It’s a family name, not a boatyard like everyone at school thinks. Two of my aunts and three of my cousins have the same name, so it’s definitely a family name. My sign name is M moving upward on the cheek like the sign for shy because I’m so quiet. I don’t think being quiet means that I’m shy, but Missy says that it’s the same thing. I’m almost fourteen and go to eighth grade at the Rochester School of the Deaf. The last bit is the most important.

I didn’t always go there. I used to be mainstreamed, which means you go to school with hearing kids. That was all right for a while. My friends all learned to sign so that we could play tag and Spit. They thought it was cool that I could sign “turtle” and “poop.”

That changed last year, though. Delia, who was my best friend, stopped signing. She said that it looked stupid. All of the girls wanted to talk about boys instead of playing Spit. They kept laughing without telling me why.

When I asked Alice about this, she told me it was because hearing people could never understand what it’s like to be Deaf. Alice was my teacher of the deaf, which means that my school paid her to help me integrate into the school. Or at least that’s what the papers said. She mostly talked about how important Deaf culture was. That’s when she told me about RSD and how the kids were like me there. Some of the teachers were deaf, too.

When I asked to go there, Mãe cried and Papai said that the education wasn’t as good. I told them that I wanted to be somewhere I could understand people better. I don’t know if that actually happened. Oh, I wasn’t supposed to say that, so forget it.

I smiled as I looked around. Bright green, blue, and red feathers covered our boring beige walls. The silver tassels hanging from the ceiling made the orange shag carpet less ugly. I inhaled the smells of feijoada and pão de queijo, full of beans, meat, and cheese. It was almost time.

Mãe seized a feather from Papai with that mad-annoyed look that she got when I didn’t take out the trash. Their mouths moved in that Portuguese way. Papai touched her cheek and said something that made her stop waving the feather around. She didn’t look happy, but she didn’t look as mad, either. I wished I knew what he said so I’d know what to do when I mess up.

I should explain why I don’t know Portuguese. After I got sick and went deaf when I was two, teachers told my parents that they should only speak English with me. Something about how English and sign language were more important. So that’s why they use only English even though they’re lousy at it. Sometimes Mãe speaks Portuguese by accident, and when she remembers not to, she cries.

As she hung paper palm trees, Mãe’s hips swung like a pendulum, gentle and soothing. Papai bobbed his head in that dorky way of his. I was thinking about how silly they looked when it hit me. Music was playing, too quiet for me to feel.

Before I could ask them to turn up the music, Mãe’s mouth moved in, “Dress, must finish” before sashaying down the hallway. Papai crouched by the stereo with wires dangling from his mouth. He threw down the instruction manual before picked it up again. Even though he’s good at science, he’s no good with machines. He broke the furnace once. I followed Mãe to see what she’d make this year.

She sat behind a pastel-green sewing machine with pins sticking out from her mouth. The cloths’ bright colors made me dizzy and happy because it meant that Mãe was making one of her creations, clothes that belonged in fancy stores with shiny floors.

She could be more than a cleaner. I found a photograph of her standing next to a tall blonde wearing a yellow dress that floated around her body like a cloud of daises. It said, “Rio Fashion Week 1984” at the bottom, which was the year before I was born. When I showed her the picture and asked her why she didn’t go to New York to show her dresses, she looked sad and fingerspelled: Can’t. Love you both too much.

Maybe this means that she doesn’t love making clothes anymore now that she has us. Or maybe she doesn’t want to move far away. Oh, or maybe it’s because she’s not supposed to work here. She babysits and cleans “under the table,” since Papai is here on a student visa.

She got that glazed-happy look that people get when they eat something really delicious. She slid the fabric into the machine, her fingers so close to the needle that I worried that she’d stick herself. But she never did. Every stitch was perfect. A soft smile grew on her face that made her look younger and not so tired. When she looked up and saw me, the smile changed. I can’t explain how it changed, just that it did.

She cut a thread, and the dress was done. She wriggled into it, and I gasped. It was one of her best. Reds and purples swirled around her hips and breasts, making her look curvier and taller. After I fastened the back, she twirled, and her mouth moved, “You like?”

My fingers swept around my face, the sign for beautiful.

Her eyes lit up, and the soft smile returned. She remembered the sign.

She pointed at the mirror, and her lips moved, “Same. We’re the same.”

What I saw in the mirror surprised me. Over the last few months, I had grown into someone who looked like Mãe with our wild curls, darker skin, and lips that pouted without looking sad. Other than the dark circles under her eyes and the wrinkles growing around her mouth, we looked alike. Except for our clothes. I wore baggy jeans and a red sweater. She wore a bright and glamorous dress.

“I want to wear a dress like yours and dance,” I said, the words thick in my mouth.

Her hand went to my cheek. “Later. Too young.”

I scowled at my reflection as Mãe did the final alterations. I hadn’t been too young to have a boy slide a hand up my shirt.

Frank had led me to an empty room after classes. I thought he wanted to ask me about an English essay on Shiloh since that’s my best subject. He asked if he could kiss me. I said yes after thinking about it. I wanted to know what it was like.

It felt like an alien ship landing on my mouth except that it was warm and moist. I didn’t like it at first, then I understood why all of the girls talked about kissing. It was like the heat from his mouth spread throughout my body. That felt good, so good that I didn’t want to stop. Maybe that’s why I let him lift up my shirt and put his mouth on my breasts.

Everyone found out about it by morning. I never told anyone, so Frank must’ve.

I should explain something else. Frank isn’t popular just because he plays basketball and is good-looking. All the girls think he looks like Leonardo DiCaprio. I don’t think so. His hair is floppier, and his nose is pointier. Anyway, he comes from a Deaf family, which means that his parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents are all Deaf. His parents are important people. His dad teaches at the university, and his mom does what they call advocacy work. They show everyone that Deaf people can be smart and do great things.

Missy says that this is the best kind of family because everyone understands each other. Maybe-you-him-marry-and-perfect-Deaf-family, she told me but looked mad. She didn’t understand why I was upset about everyone knowing. Not-so-bad, she said. Everyone-knows-you-now.

Mãe would’ve understood why it felt so bad that Frank blabbed. She and Papai always close the door to kiss. Some things are nobody’s business.

Mãe went to show Papai the dress. I found them in the living room, their arms wrapped around each other as they danced. The only time that Papai danced well was with Mãe. Otherwise, he bobbed his head like a chicken. She always said that it was because he was from São Paulo. “They too serious. We Rio people know how to have fun!” They must’ve forgotten I was there because they looked like they would kiss, so I left.

Half of the living room was now in my bedroom. A couch leaned against the wall surrounded by boxes full of Papai’s textbooks. Mãe’s mannequins blocked the way to my bed. I missed my bed at school where Missy and I always talked after lights out using a flashlight.

Missy is my roommate. When I arrived, she looked happy and said that she’d help me settle in. Even though she looks like a popular girl with her blonde hair and the way she walks with her back straight, she’s not stuck-up. She showed me the classrooms, told me which teachers would let you hand in homework late like Mr. Titus and the one who wouldn’t like Ms. Rausch, and to say me-deaf-same if I saw another Deaf person. We became friends after that, talking about which boys were cute like Frank and which ones weren’t like Logan. That’s why I went to Missy’s house for a weekend.

She lives in a big house with four bedrooms, a shiny kitchen, and a carpeted basement with a big TV. Missy’s mom was really pretty, in a different way from Mãe. She wears clothes that looked really good even though they used boring colors like taupe or gray. When she brought us hot chocolate, she smiled the way rich people do, without showing their teeth. She talked in that careful way people use when they speak to Deaf people, but she was good ai it. She didn’t speak too slowly or make weird faces.

That’s why I understood her at dinner. Missy was slouching, which was strange since she never did that, when her mom said, “Missy, it’s time for our speech lessons,” with a teacher-type of look. “Your articulation has gotten worse ever since you started going to that school.” Missy went red and signed big, I-told-you! No-more! She ran off and slammed the door so hard the floor shook.

Her mom turned to me with that confused look that meant she didn’t understand anything Missy had said. I think she wanted to ask what Missy said because her fingers twitched like she was trying to sign. She must’ve given up since she cleaned up instead. Before she turned away, I’m pretty sure I saw tears in her eyes. I didn’t know what to do, so I left.

I’ve never seen Missy so upset before. Her hands almost hit the lamp as she told me about the hours-long speech lessons. She-says-I-not-try-enough. I-tried-so-hard! I-no-good-talking. She opened and closed her mouth in a way that made speaking look ridiculous. I-good-signer. People-understand-me-at-school. She nodded once, like she’d decided something important. She-no-understand-me. She-not-my-real-family. You-me-deaf-same. You-me-family.

Her hands drew a circle in the air between us, like we belonged together. It made me think of how much I liked talking to her and the other kids at school. They never said things like “Never mind,” or “It’s not important.” My hands could move as fast as my thoughts, and their eyes never got that confused look. So I hugged Missy and told her we were a family. I was happy until I thought of Mãe and Papai. I could imagine how they would look if they knew. Mãe would cry, and Papai would get that disappointed look he got when I said I didn’t like science.

I don’t want to talk about this anymore. It’s too complicated.

I was flipping through one of Papai’s textbooks about something called quantum mechanics when I felt it. The bed shook to the beat of what must be samba drums. Carnaval had finally started! I flung open the door, and the vibrations hit me in the chest. People were already dancing, their hands in the air. Roberto stood in the corner and smiled when he saw me.

I’ve always thought Roberto was good-looking, maybe even better looking than Frank. He’s skinny with curly black hair tied back in a ponytail, which doesn’t make him look like a girl at all. He smiles at you like he wants to be your friend. Frank smiles like he has lots already.

You-back! How’s-school? he signed.

I pressed my cheek against his chest. The familiar smell of his shampoo made me forget that I’d been away.

Roberto has lived upstairs for as long as I can remember. He moved in as a graduate student and never left even though he’s a teacher now. My parents dropped me off whenever they had to work, which was a lot. He learned to sign so fast that he can sign really well for a hearing person. He always told me it was because he plays guitar. I don’t think so. I think it’s something else.

School-good, I said, trying not to think about the rumors.

So-far-away, he signed. I-miss-you. Too-quiet-here.

I thought about telling him everything. About how the other kids asked me if my family dealt drugs. About what happened with Missy. About how I felt different from the other deaf kids even though me-deaf-same. About how everyone was calling me a slut now. But I couldn’t.

Whenever I imagined marrying someone, I always thought of Roberto. We would live upstairs and my parents would stay downstairs. We would have Carnaval parties every year. I know this sounds like a stupid kid’s dream. If I told him, it would mess up everything. I don’t know why, just that it would.

You-enjoy-party? I asked instead.

A dimple appeared in his cheek. Love-it. Reminds-me-of-discotheques-in-Mexico-City. He raised his right arm and gyrated like John Travolta. I giggled.

His eyes got serious. His hands moved—Tell-me-more-about-school—until his gaze moved past me to a blonde wearing a skirt too short for upstate New York winters. He promised to talk later and went toward the woman.

She flipped her hair the whole time they chatted, which made her look stupid like she had a neck problem. Roberto must’ve liked it since they went upstairs together.

Bodies and colors swam around me as people talked, laughed, and danced. Lips shaped into different languages. Portuguese had more lip-puckering and moved faster. English was slower with the mouth opening wider. Spanish was somewhere in between. No matter how hard I tried, I understood nothing. This was boring.

I bumped against a table full of caipirinhas. Papai liked to drink them and say, “Only real Brazilians drink these! Americans keep their watery beers and snobby wines.” His eyes glazed over, and he acted like he didn’t have to worry about money or his dissertation. Carefree, that’s the word for how he looks.

I stared into the cup, wondering what it tasted like. Everyone had told me not to drink. Teachers. Roberto. Mãe and Papai. I could almost see the word “no.” The oval mouth-shape. Fingers coming together like a clamp. I wanted to tell everyone no. No to Mãe and Papai for not understanding me, for making me try so hard. No to kids at school for knowing nothing about Carnaval. No to Frank. No to Roberto. No, no, no!

The drink burned all the way down. How could Papai like something so awful? Something must be wrong, so I drank another one and another. It was like kissing. The more I drank, the more I liked it. The sweet and tart mixed into something so delicious that nothing else mattered.

Nobody noticed. Everyone kept dancing, dancing, dancing.

The floor turned wobbly like jelly. I stared at a red feather bounce in the air, a pleasant heaviness weighting down my limbs. Somehow the colors, the movements, everything around me, had become more vivid, more real.

BOOM, badum–badum–tish. BOOM, badum–badum–tish.

The beat flowed through my body, the drums pounding throughout my body. I swayed as I watched everyone twisting and turning, the colors of their masks and clothes blurring together. I was living inside one of Mãe’s dresses, full of floating and beautiful colors.

BOOM, badum–badum–tish. BOOM, badum–badum–tish.

Expressions of ecstasy surrounded me as everyone lost themselves in the dance. Oh, I wished I could reach out and touch their happiness, or maybe I could. I don’t just want to stand by and watch, not anymore.

Cuica–cuicaBRRRUUUU—UUM! BOOM, badum–badum–tish. BOOM, badum–badum–tish.

I want to dance! It was so obvious that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. The drums inside me had to escape, I needed to go out there and dance, dance, dance!

Hot, sweaty bodies pressed against me. I raised my arms and waited for the dance to come. But It didn’t come… my body wouldn’t move… a man gave me an annoyed look as I stepped on his foot… I’m trying to follow everyone else… almost tripped… I tried again… again… my limbs were stiff… nothing was working.

I wanted to dance but I couldn’t! Tears stung the back of my eyes. I turned and saw her.

Mãe was dancing on top of a table. Her hips whirled in figure-eights, the lines of her dress swirling together into whirlpools of color. Oh! An ecstatic smile lifted her mouth as her arms swayed. Joy! Yes! The picture was interrupted when Papai brought her down to dance with him. They danced into oblivion.

The table stood empty, looking sad. Mouths opened in “Dance! Dance!” I took an outstretched hand and leaped onto the table. Everything started to spin, making me queasy. I squeezed my eyes shut. The music felt shaper, clearer. Yes. My body moved, loosening and loosening. Yes, yes, yes! Sway, lift, shimmy, twirl. I was dancing! Dancing, dancing, dancing!


Laughter burst out of me. The dance flowed through my body, bringing with it everyone’s joy. I belonged here. Twirling, twirling, twirling!

Something grabbed me.

I almost fell off the table. Papai grabbed me—why?—and swept me off the table. His hand kept me in place as Mãe’s face appeared, worried and confused.

Her lips shaped some words I didn’t understand. I shook my head. What did she say? Why did they stop me? I want to dance!

Hands—theirs? Someone else’s? I didn’t know—pushed and pulled at me. Papai’s glasses flashed, the reflection of Carnaval’s crazy colors. Everything went double, two of Papai and Mãe, four anxious faces, six mouths opening and closing in nonsensical shapes. Oh, it’s so confusing! I tried to catch the words, I swear! I tried, tried, but the words kept escaping me.

Something snapped. Enough! I was sick of always chasing the mouth-shapes of their puzzled looks. Enough! I wanted them to understand me!

My fingers moved—flying, pointing, swooping, dancing—as the words flowed in torrents. Why don’t you know my language? Don’t you know what it means? It means that you don’t know the Deaf-world, you don’t know who I am now, and if you don’t know who I am, how can you be my family? My hands danced in the air, all of my thoughts—in my true language!—unleashed. I’m free! Don’t you understand, Mãe and Papai? Don’t you want to be my family, linked in an unending circle? My real family?

As my hand formed the circle, someone jostled me from behind, breaking the sign.

Papai looked away. Mãe put her face into her hands, her shoulders shaking like she was crying. They stayed there, looking small and shriveled. Beaten. Even if they didn’t understand the words themselves, they felt their force. Oh, I didn’t want this to happen! I never wanted Mãe to cry and Papai to look like someone had hit him. All I wished for was a place to belong. A family!

Everyone kept dancing around us, making me dizzy. My stomach hurt, and I felt like throwing up. I told them that I was sorry, so sorry. I turned and ran, ran to the bathroom. Oh, I’m going to be sick!

I don’t remember much of what happened next. Just the white bottom of the toilet bowl and Mãe’s hands holding my hair back. The burning in my mouth afterward. They must’ve helped me to bed because I woke up there all sweaty with a dry mouth.

Mãe sat by me with a glass of water and an aspirin. Her face was scrubbed clean of all makeup, which made her look younger, more like me. I gulped down the water, which was the most delicious thing ever. She started to talk, her hands not fast enough to keep up with her mouth. I was too young to drink. Carnaval wasn’t an excuse to break the rules. I had to clean up the mess as punishment. That was what she said, more or less.

I’ve never been in this much trouble before. The idea made me queasy all over again. What if they didn’t love me anymore?

She pressed her hand to my forehead. Her lips moved in that Portuguese way, one word in the shape of amor, which means love. Maybe they still love me after all. Her soft smile vanished as she stood up. “Clean up now!” she said.

My head throbbed as I went into the living room. It was a mess. Empty paper plates and cups were everywhere, even on the stereo, which had a big brown puddle on top. I hoped that Papai hadn’t seen that yet. Crumbs of pão de queijo were stuck on the carpet strands, making the carpet look even worse. I wondered how I hadn’t noticed the mess last night. Maybe dancing and feathers cover up even the messiest rooms.

Crazy-party-this-year, Roberto said, looking tired. Sorry-I-missed-your-show.

My blush made him laugh, Don’t-worry. Okay-to-go-crazy-sometimes. Just-remember-to-come-back-to-real-life. He went to my bedroom to bring out more boxes.

As I pushed the vacuum around, things didn’t seemed so bad. So what if I told Missy I was her family? Maybe I could have two families, one at home and one at school, one hearing and one Deaf. That idea made me smile until I remembered that Missy wouldn’t dance and sing at Carnaval and would think feijoada tasted disgusting. Mãe and Papai wouldn’t understand the Deaf-world or its language. They would remain far apart, two circles that would never become one. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll figure it out someday. I have to clean up first.

Oh yeah, I figured out what to say to Frank. I’ll tell him that I don’t kiss blabbermouths.