A Bird With One Eye by Rachel Mangini
I thought I could handle a year, just one, in a country that belonged to him. I planned. Grew my hair out and let it go wavy. The Brazilian Vogue I subscribed to came each month wrapped in plastic and dated for the previous month. Page after page, pictures of women with long wavy hair. Tanned skin, bold lipstick. I bought lipstick called Burnt Plum, Raspberry Wine. I bought tapes and practiced losing my accent. Practiced walking in heels. Blisters peppered my feet, cracked, healed, hardened. Practiced for a year of feeling uncomfortable. Don’t worry, he said. You’ll love it.
He was right. For the first month it was like vacation. We bought a little Beetle and hummed around the tiny towns and surrounding countryside visiting waterfalls, abandoned mines. The car sputtered all the way to the coast where we laid on the beach for two weeks drinking beer and eating fish pulled thrashing from the sea in front of our chairs by sun baked men in cotton shorts. We wound between and around the mountains, our little car pulling the sky in through the windows. We drank life up in roadside cafes. Pulled the rind off it, letting the juices drip down our arms to our elbows at shacks selling oranges, four different kinds of oranges, more oranges than I had seen in my life.
A dark night, soft endless darkness punctured only by our foggy headlights. The gas gauge is getting low and it’s too late to trust anyplace
will be open down the road. Dazed and exhausted, we stumble accidentally into a late night show looking for a place to sleep. There are two
women on the stage. One naked and one getting there. A hundred men pulse in the crowd, pressing toward the stage.
“Liz this is Graziella, our mothers were best friends.”
Shy about her English, Graziella spoke in Portuguese. “My mother is so lonely, now that Paulo’s is gone. She was a blessing.”
“Liz never met her.”
“She would have adored you.” She put her hand on my shoulder.
We had just arrived in the town he was born in. Graziella met us at our new house, his brother’s old farmhouse, with linens, enough food to last a few days. Coffee.
“From my mama,” she said, presenting her gifts, stumbling in her heavy accent. “Please make home.”
“It is like a homewarming,” said my husband.
Graziella helped me make the bed. We hung a curtain over the window facing the road. The rest of the windows looked out over hillsides
planted with coffee.
“I have never seen a coffee tree before,” I said.
“Nunca? You lie.”
The mirror was small and cloudy. I pried it from the wall and rubbed clear an opening with a wet t-shirt. Approached it on hand and knee. The bikini he bought me pinched and no matter which way I pulled it, revealed too much. Fleshy bits on my shoulder and ribs, over my hips, bunched up around the straps nearly enveloping them.
“Is it supposed to look like this?”
“I feel like a Christmas ham.”
He pulled and it unraveled. We unraveled. Our first night in the little farmhouse. In the morning I swept the place clean and opened all the windows. A bird flew in.
She was not any special type of bird, smaller than a fist, ruddy brown. After that first day, I thought she had gone, but when I opened an old oak cabinet, she flew at me. Hit me in the face and fell back into the cabinet. I backed away sneezing and she fluttered out, perching on the curtain rod. Paulo said she was dirty, filled with pulgas, fleas. He tried to catch her in a pillowcase but she was lucky. One night as we sat down to dinner, rice, beans, fried chicken, she hopped over toward the leg of his chair and paused. Her heartbeat shook her whole body. We both saw at once, she had only one eye.
A bird with one eye was a guest in our house, two eyes would have made her unwelcome. This is the way things are with Paulo. His reasoning has to do with the order of the world, the way things are assembled. Perfection unnerves him. A tender blemish, the centimeter long slit where an eye used to be, opens his heart. He called her Flor and began whistling, hoping she would sing.
I was unsure anymore, who I was. The move would help. A foreigner in a new place, I could define myself in opposition. But once we settled in and Paulo went to work at the law office of his friend, I found that having so much time alone didn’t help. I tried visiting the market, buying ingredients to cook food I was used to, but nothing turned out right. The texture was always slightly off. Or the smell. I tried to write. Ended up filling pages with poor translations of songs and ads on the radio. Wrote poems about Flor, so far, my only friend.
Graziella and her cousin Lu invited me shopping, at Paulo’s request. After trying every pair of jeans in town I wanted to go home and cry. Lu traced the curve of the line from her chest to where it tucked in neatly at her waist and then rounded back out over her hips. She stuck both her hands out toward me and dropped them from my chest straight down to my hips. Smiling as if at a child. “Differente,” she said. “Fuck you,” I said, also smiling. Lu spoke no English.
Graziella’s hand emerged from behind the curtain of the fitting room, the rings on her fingers clink clinking as she motioned for me to slip inside. A tiny room. A corner partitioned off with a curtain. A grimy mirror hanging loosely on the wall. Graziella modeled a backless dress that fit just right, as if someone had sewn it onto her. I was crammed on top of her. Giggling, she twisted this way and that like we were old friends who had done this many times. The dress draped, pooling at the base of her spine, the cool blue color highlighting the amber tones in her skin. “For the festa,” she said and did a little samba in the mirror as she started peeling the dress down, exposing the soft stippled flesh of her belly. To her, we were old friends. I ducked out, rising to the surface for a breath on the other side of the curtain.
“Liz, voce vem a festa?” she called from inside.
“Festa de Anniversario Paulo.”
Paulo was sitting at the table when I got home, goading Flor with bits of dried corn. He whistled three notes, his lips inches from her beak. She hopped toward his hand pecking at the corn. Not emitting a sound.
“She’s mute,” he said, offering Flor the rest of the corn from his palm.
“She’s throwing you a birthday party?”
“Then there won’t be singing.” He stroked her belly with a finger while she ate.
“Not the goddamned bird. Graziella.” I finally got his attention. He looked at me, assessing.
“Ah. I guess, yes.”
“You guess? You weren’t going to tell me?”
“I told you. She invited us for a barbeque. Saturday.”
“You didn’t tell me it was a birthday party.”
“Just a barbeque.”
“You haven’t seen the dress.”
It was impossible to believe she could spend a day cooking in the strappy stilettos that clicked across the terrace as she approached us, with drinks. After driving into town from our house in the countryside on a day dead with the sticky hot I was still not used to, I was gritty, my makeup caked. “Feliz Anniversario amor,” she chirped, embracing Paulo. “Hap Birday?” she asked me. She sounded like a slow child in English. I didn’t correct her.
Three drinks in I realized I couldn’t stomach the cachaça liquor like them. Everyone else was getting giddy, clapping to the beat of the songs they all knew, singing, dancing on the lawn. They were a chorus, loose and fun. Swaying in unison. Little boys weaving in and around the dancing adults, chasing each other. Little girls cutting a mean samba with their fathers’ friends. Their hips shaking in a precisely timed frenzy. Paulo had disappeared into the house on the pretense of a fresh drink. Someone’s uncle gripped his meaty hand like thick hot jello around mine. Pulled me into the bunch of dancers. Tried to force my hips to move independently of the upper half of me. Sweat prickled across my forehead.
When Paulo found me I had just finished being sick next to an abandoned case of empty beer bottles. He had two heaping plates, home
cooked food he looked disappointed to leave behind.
She worked at the newspaper. I went in to take out an ad. For my services. English lessons I told her. “Excellent.” She smiled at me. Strong white teeth embedded in high pink gums, her full lips stretched wide across her cheeks. I could feel a handful of her Vogue hair in my hand. Ripping it from her scalp. Stuffing it down my shirt. Running down three flights of cement steps screaming. Whore, bitch. She pushed it lazily over her shoulder and handed me a pen to sign the form. Smiled again. My eyebrow began a twitch that kept up for weeks.
I met students at a table in the Oi Lanchonete. My fee was modest. I helped them complete exercises I had copied on colored sheets of paper. Some came to practice conversation. A news reporter wanted help with her accent. One man just watched.
Tall, thin but for a paunch buttoned up and tucked into his jeans, he leaned against the building across the street smoking cigarettes and nodding at friends passing by in their worn out cars. Sat down across from me and mangled good afternoon. Asked me to dinner in
“Yes. Eu também. Me too.” I could smell his cologne, an earthy musk, with a touch of something cool and bright.
“English doesn’t have the words for this,” I said.
“Vamos. Let’s go.” He followed the path of my eyes to the second button undone on his shirt.
“Seu marido, husband,” he said. “He is handsome.” Suddenly his English smoothed. “Women adore him. Women bonita.”
I shook my head. No.
I could feel it coming, her name. I tried to hold it back. “Friend.” I said. “Amiga.”
My stomach slid out between my legs.
I walked away, leaving my things behind. Walked and walked toward the farmhouse. By the time he found me, the clay dust of the road
had crusted my legs up to my knees.
“What are you doing?” Paulo asked.
“It’s ten kilometers. Maluca. Get in the car woman.” I got in. He kissed me. “How were your lessons today?”
I said nothing.
“You are sick again?”
“You need a bath.”
He helped me into the house, stripped me down in the shower and washed the clay from my skin humming a song they played all day
long in the Oi Lanchonete. Jazzy, a little sad, it sunk in to my warm, swollen pores. I watched his hands travel my body seeking peace,
tracing ever-changing patterns connecting my thighs to my hips to my belly. I began to feel whole again. I began to forget. I could forget.
Yes. The man who watched was mistaken.
He rinsed my hair. It slid slippery through his fingers. The longer I tried to grow it, the thinner it became. How could he not prefer her hair, long, thick, a mane? I went to bed without saying a word.
In the morning I bought an old film camera from a man on the street. He tried to sell me a tripod and an electric fan along with it. I only
needed the camera. And film. Rolls and rolls.
She took her mother to lunch every day. A compact woman with straw colored hair. How had her daughter’s full hips passed through her own taut narrow ones? They ate a hundred tiny bites whittling mounds of food down to bare plates chattering. Shared a soda. Tuesday she wore a dress. Wednesday she wore linen pants. Thursday she wore her hair up. Bent her bare neck gracefully to peck her mother on the cheek.
Friday he went into the newspaper. Came out in less than ten minutes. She didn’t take lunch. Saturday they passed each other on the street. Exchanged a polite kiss, kiss. He talked fast, raised his sunglasses up onto his forehead. Nodded, laughed. She adjusted the strap of her bra. That night he went out. Men’s night he said.
“You know the guys, they want to drink and rough each other up. You would hate it. You should go out. Ask one of your students.”
“It’s fine. I’m tired.”
“You are tired a lot lately.” I was already asleep.
I could smell her on him when he got home. Ambrosia, white wine. I woke up with him inside me. Inside her. His pants twisted around his feet, my thighs drenched with their sweat. I clenched my hatred tight inside my chest until he pried it from me in a reckless second. It burst into the air and rained down, embers burning his back. I love you he said. The room reeked of singed flesh.
One lunch she saw me. I was late and tried to slip in the door of the café across the street to hunker into my table in the corner. I watched
her with her mother from this table daily.
“Liz,” she yelled. A quick sharp blush bled across my cheeks. I waved. Standing stupidly with the door of the café in my hand, letting the air conditioning out.
“Come, join.” Her slender, graceful fingers beckoned me.
“Oh, eu não quero, ah, interrupt.” I stumbled over my Portuguese.
“I, well—” my heart beat wildly like the wings of the little bird who had made an empire out of our home.
I felt dizzy. I should decline. I should…the café owner wrenched the door out of my hand and pushed it shut. “Condicionado,” he said.
“Estranha,” he huffed under his breath as he retreated toward the counter. Now I had no choice.
My shirt clung to my sweaty chest, my camera strapped across it making it look even more deflated. I could feel her mother’s eyes on me. Calculating. Adding up my faults, subtracting them from her daughter’s, noting down the figure to later recount to Paulo.
They talked about shoes, a local politician, and inevitably, Paulo’s mother. Her sickness was not long the mother said, graças a Deus.
But her life was too short.
“Tragedy,” she said to me in English, smiling at her translation. She took my hand. “Uma mãe,” she said, “mother, é a alma de um homem.”
The core of a man? Had I understood that correctly?
Graziella nodded solemnly. “Yes, yes,” she said. “Paulo need his mama. A big loss. Now we family Paulo. And you. Angel. Sweet Liz.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks. Of course he was in love with her. Gracious, stunning, kind, love was a force around her, an undeniable fact.
I was in love with her.
Suddenly unable to swallow, my throat swelled shut. I coughed my last bite into my napkin, pushed a few wrinkled bills from my pocket
toward Graziella, and fled.
“Liz,” she called after me. Liz, Liz, Liz, it rang in my ears as I rushed to the end of the block and turned the corner, hoping the echo wouldn’t follow.
A hundred men gulp beer and shout. Strip, fuck. Sing. The naked one starts to sing. The men clap rhythmically along. The other woman
crawls to the edge of the stage on her hands and knees. Tight heavy flesh shakes on her thighs threatening to swing loose and knock a man in
the front row to the ground. She swings her head in big circles, sweat flying from the tips of her hair. The singing woman mounts her and whoops. The men whoop. My husband whoops. Fuck my husband yells. My husband puts one hand up in my direction for a high five, raises two fingers on the other toward a girl selling beer. My husband grins. I slap his sweaty palm and let a gulp of beer slide down my throat, drowning away the miles behind us on the road. For a glorious moment I am there.
I label the exposed rolls of film and keep them nested in a box inside a drawer next to our bed. One is labeled Café. One House. I catalogued our house on a grey day. The worn wood of the front door, its handle loose. The foot of the bed that never rests firmly on the ground, a half inch of hover space, a tiny buffer between bedpost and floorboard that only exists when Paulo is awake. Two rolls are labeled Her. I don’t need to develop these. Holding them in my hand I know I can destroy them. Burn or crush them.
I snap a new roll into the camera. Pull the film forward, lock it into the little teeth. Swing the door closed and snap, snap, snap to advance the spoiled film. Now, I’m ready.
Seguindo, she calls me. She shuffles out of the nail salon in the plastic flip flops they give you running at me, the plastic slipping on the concrete. She wants my camera. I twist back to get a final shot. Glorious. She looks much less attractive, dowdy almost, without heels. I tuck my camera under my arm and run to the taxi stand on the other side of the square. Will I be refused a ride? I feel the town banding against me.
The door of the taxi creaks as I force it open and will myself to step out. He is standing in the doorframe. I knew she would call him.
“Smile,” I say and snap his picture as I breeze by him into the house.
“You are ill,” he follows me up the stairs. “Something is not right. We should return.”
“You mean I should go home?” My voice too big for the little bedroom, rattles the windowpanes.
“I should leave so you can fuck her in her sheets?” I clutch the bed sheets and rip, piercing them with my nails.
“Liz,” he says, “listen.”
“I can’t hear,” My heart flaps wildly inside my chest, trying to break free. “You are gone.”
“I’m here.” His arms stretch toward me, reaching. Wanting to stroke, to comfort me.
“No. You love her.”
“Yes.” It bursts out of him. It has been locked inside too long.
I fall to the floor, curl into a tight fist, squeeze my eyes into slits. Will the earth to swallow me.
“I love her. She is my family. All I have left. But you are my wife.”
I screech, flailing violently. Bruising myself against the wood.
“She has been generous to you, no? You are wrong Liz. Stop this madness.”
I struggle on the floor, flightless and dumb.
“You need a moment.” He is gone.
Tears sting the corners of my eyes, streak my cheeks, run into my mouth. I spit them on the floor. I cannot swallow.
Seguindo. Under the bed I see my tattered Portuguese dictionary covered in dust. Seguindo: one who follows. Follower. Stalker. Puta,
I had yelled back. Whore. I threw it at her face. Smeared it in her hair, let the smell of it settle in at her collarbones. It felt good. It still
felt good. I climb onto the bed, press my wet face to his pillow inhaling. Only feathers, stale feathers.
I am right there. The beer fizzes through me and out my limbs cementing me to that glorious moment. I feel whole, strong, wild. I toss
my head back and sing out. Fuck, I sing. Fuck. The men all turn my direction. Silence radiates from me outward like a ripple. The
naked woman whispers something to the woman she is riding. They study me inquisitively. No one moves. Americana, my husband
explains. The crowd goes wild. Fuck fuck fuck they chant along with me. The women go at it.
Rachel Mangini is a writer studying and working in Pittsburgh. She loves to travel, and
to bake. Both her husband and her dog can attest to the fact that she is a great