Second Prize Fire Escape's 2008 Short Story Contest
The Language of Smoke
by Laura, Brazil/America, Age 17
She spends her twelfth birthday in the corner of a large, white room, farthest from where pork-scented smoke cloaks charring meat with wide, slow strokes. She will smell thoroughly of the day soon. Already she feels like meat, prodded and passed, reduced to lukewarm, malleable flesh. Unknown cousins have touched her neck with smooth, dry hands, kissed her cheeks, stood close to her next to the salads, offered her Guaraná in murky English: You want… some…Guaraná?
And she has managed to turn her head to the left and to the right and up and down and to let one side of her mouth crease into an oval dimple; she has managed to shuffle, her back bent forward as if weighed down by her head, to the food and then to this corner.
She is ugly today. Especially here. Her cheeks are flecked with pimples that fatten as they near her hairline and her hair kinks uncertainly around her face, as if its shape is the result of several bad grooming decisions instead of its genetic prowess. The men and women surrounding her have skin in shades of caramel and mocha and their hair looks like thickened silk; their clothing is white and light and it hangs on their bodies, their long-legged, long-necked bodies, as if on tinted manikins.
"Você quer mais arroz?" her aunt asks, face fading from laughter at someone’s joke. More rice?
"No, obrigado," she whispers, and her aunt turns away. Portuguese sounds hard and cold off of her tongue, like she is trying to craft silk out of wound bits of plastic. She is ashamed to speak it in Brazil, to add her whittled efforts to the warm, pretty sea of it.
Her sister joins her, sits next to her on a plastic bench. "Did you try this?" She indicates something on her plate.
"No, I didn’t."
"It’s pretty awesome."
"It probably is."
How dead their American words are, dry as cut trees, charismatic as dust, blocky and pithy and stunted, each one stagnating in its place, all while the party is markedly Brazilian, all while everyone is swaying and clearing the tables to her cousin’s guitar, all while everyone looks lush and damp, all while everyone is speaking together, at once, part of the same musical note.
The party will last until after midnight. Her uncles and grandmother, her vovó, will get tipsy and will unabashedly dance with each other to clear, smooth bossa nova from the stereo they’ve set up, will sip champagne to her birth and have tears in their eyes, probably, from the drinks or because they love her. And she will sit and look down and smile politely, say thank you, feel shelved. Suddenly she wants so much to adhere to the perfume of the day and its voices, to get up and dance and feel warm, to be smoothed of her apprehension, to kiss her cousins’ cheeks with undaunted lips.
She closes her eyes.
When she opens them her vovó’s hand is hot on her back and her lips are on her forehead. "Meu amor," she says, smiling, holding her hand now. "Meu amor."