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Red Paint

miriam cruz / essay

Halls So Softly Worn

It was an innocuous door—chipped and creaky, tall and lean—that led to my first school. You’ll find many doors like it just outside the beating heart of Lisbon, the Baixa. There, in the center, the streets are wide, flush with sunlight and bumbling tourists. The buildings smile with a worldly curl of lip. But just around the corner, there are streets like capillaries, so thin they shy away from maps. You must learn your way by heart.  

It was these, the city’s oldest streets, that I knew first. My parents drove through them daily on their way to the Opera House, and I joined them when I was little. Every morning we headed off together, stuffing our family car with purses, school bags, flute bags, my tiny cello, and Dad’s concert tails. Our gray Fiat galumphed through the city like a breathless, enterprising pug. 

My school was on their way, a sensible ten minutes from the theater. Or it would have been if we’d ever left on time. Every day, we’d get caught behind a neighboring school’s drop-off procession. My parents bickered, mixing Dad’s Portuguese and Mami’s English, over whose fault it was we would be late again. From the backseat, I watched the other kids, my rivals, with fascination. Their socks were milky white, their nappies plump like ducks’ tails. Their school, with its fluorescent lights, seemed surreal to me. The sort of place a dentist would think was suitable for his children, but not this pair of disgruntled musicians. 

After we parked, it was a scramble. Thrashing out of my seatbelt, slinging on my backpack, scuttling up the street with one hand in each parent’s. The buildings looked aloof, and my school was no different. But I smiled. I knew what was hidden inside. 

My dad tells me that on my first day of school, at two, I refused to introduce myself by any name besides Snow White. My mother disagrees. They’re both adamant, but I never cared to find out who was right. Childhood is such a jumble. Little truths and fantasies veiled in a fabric half as faint as tulle. Memories live cloistered, it keeps them safe. I can laugh with Dad, now, over that story, but I won’t touch the lock—the metallic shudder, the latch sliding into place when he walked then drove away. I didn’t understand where he’d gone. The silence he left behind was deafening. 



My mother buzzed at the door. It was just us two, then.  

Cátia opened the door. She was the teacher’s helper and had a smile you could hear.  "Bom dia, Mimi,” she greeted me. I could never keep myself from smiling back. Not if I bit my lips or turned their corners down. Not even if I’d resolved to be sad all day. “Olá, Cátia,” I said, giving her my free hand, and waving Mom goodbye.

Entering the school was like stepping into sunlight after being in the shade too long. A feeling on your skin, a lightness in your chest. The school was named Árvore, after the orange tree in the courtyard. There couldn’t have been more than forty children, but precise numbers are irrelevant. We filled the space like a circus. We had a hum that steeped the halls. Sara, the headmistress, passed by me, cooing at a fussy toddler in her arms. Alzira, the cook, sang to a kid on her knee, “Ah ah ah, minha machadinha, ah ah ah, minha machadinha,” and a string of kids rushed past, calling me. “Mimi!” I followed, eager to join the chorus line. There was always a place for me among the racket. 

The noise didn’t quite suit the building. The whole city outside seemed fatigued. It leered as Mami and I passed when we were left without a car. The haggard homes, and their weather-worn women, spied us mistrustfully. Maybe Mami’s hair was too light, or maybe they could hear her American accent from a distance, but they seemed to know my mother was foreign. Without Dad there, I felt I needed to prove we belonged, so I didn’t like speaking back in English. “Espera.” I couldn’t keep up with her wide strides, the cobblestones gnawed at my tennis shoes. Mami sighed. Many things floated around us—judgments, pity, laughter—but they never quite reached me like my mother’s wounded sighs.  

But the school was kinder. Yes, the floor grumbled under our hurried steps, and in the winter the walls forgot to keep out the cold. The building was a curmudgeonly old man, made of stiff lines and rooms joined by achy hinges. But we loved him anyway. By the end of the day, we would match: his art-covered walls, our doodled hands. To me, Árvore was this collection of halls so softly worn. Not perfect, but complete. He loved us, in his clumsy way. 

As familiar as Árvore was, it still held its mysteries. The ghost in the toolshed, the treasure in the neighbor’s yard. And we whispered, have you seen the room hidden under the kitchen? Sara, the headmistress, showed it to us once. It was the stuff of legends. A small group of us gathered around the countertop where we’d often baked biscuits and cakes. We awed as she flipped it open and revealed a secret passage, a rickety flight of stairs whose final steps dissolved into darkness. We listened keenly to our Mother Goose, as one by one she took us down, telling us the chamber’s story. 

“Decades ago, we lived under a dictatorship,” Sara told us. “People couldn’t choose how to live, and if they disobeyed—well, they’d get in trouble.” The light waned as we descended. “Back then, boys and girls couldn’t study together. The law said they had to go to separate schools.” Below, the air felt different, swirling with flecks of dust. The room was small. Indiscernible paraphernalia huddled in the dark. “The women that founded our school didn’t think that was right. So they welcomed all, to learn together. The neighbors, however, became suspicious, and called the police.” 

Beneath the floorboards, voices became heavy and muffled. Children’s steps boomed overhead like a stampede.  “If they’d caught them, the teachers would’ve been arrested. So, when the police came, they hid.” I gulped and clutched the railing. “They hid right here.”  

Where there now were boxes and shelves, there had once been children. I held my breath, as though my silence could keep them safe. I retreated, sure there was a face in the darkness.  

With a desperate gulp, we emerged and the group dispersed. The world above felt sharper. I became engrossed by my feet eroding the wooden floor. There was a chip there; someone had nicked it. That had never occurred to me before. That day, reality unfolded and lost its shape. It was not metal, but something more like clay: you could mold and smear it in a stroke. 

Looking around, I became dismayed. It was all a little broken. 

That word frightened me: broken.


What’s a whole family, and what breaks it? What’s a broken family, and can you fix it? Does one start where the first one ended?  

They felt forbidden, these feelings. I was sure I was alone. I swallowed dry and stepped outside.




The courtyard was shaded by a great orange tree. It was home to many bird nests, lost footballs, and fruit from which we made inedible jam. I made my way through the yard. By the hopscotch, those waiting for their turn sprawled on the ground, and with spare chalk drew flowers, birds, and butterflies. Nightly, dew washed the concrete clean, but recess came like spring to the courtyard, bringing blossoms and life with it. A football whizzed past me; a boy sang out “quem quer jogar à apanhada?” looking to start a game of catch; I dodged some show-off on the monkey bars. I was heading to the Bananeira. It was a secluded nook, with a banana tree and a pair of benches that welcomed conversation. It appealed most to the older kids, those who had secrets of their own.  

A friend once revealed, there, that she was thinking of leaving the school. Mariana, the headmistress’ daughter, brought me by my hand and bade me sit by her side, below the banana tree.  “Mimi,” she said, tucking a strand of chestnut hair behind her ear. She wouldn’t look me in the eye, so I knew it was serious. I straightened my back. It felt like the proper thing to do. She continued, “Não digas a ninguém,” to which I nodded, vowing myself to secrecy. And with the glint of someone who has a powerful secret, she confessed: “Eu estou a pensar mudar de escola.” I jerked back. She wanted to leave? A smile crept up my lips. I tried to hide it, but giggled instead. She did not look pleased. 

Desculpa,” I apologized. But leaving seemed impossible, and I couldn’t understand why she would want to. “Mas… Porquê?” 

Her shoulders slumped and she looked away, mouth tightening, then flinching. Her restlessness was familiar. It was the kind that made your fingers itch and your eyes water. The kind you can’t soothe.  

Sei lá,” she sighed. My skin crept. I knew that sigh. A little fury, a little unhappiness that never finds the words to share its reason.

I remembered Mariana looking over her shoulder, keeping an eye on her mother. I remembered when she stopped inviting people over to her home, keeping judging eyes away. We had twin troubles.

Sympathy knotted in my throat. I let her shrug, unable to speak. The only thing I knew to do with that sound was to not let it brew. I jumped up. “Anda.” A game of catch was starting, so we ought to join. I pulled her by the hand, and together, we ran away.  




There’s a game children play when an eyelash falls. You get to make a wish. You pick it off your cheek, shut your eyes, and press it hard between your fingers so you’re sure it listens. Then you blow it away. I recall playing it one afternoon, waiting for my mom to pick me up.  Before that day I never had to think about what to wish for. I only had one worth an eyelash: I wanted my family back. But that day I just stared at the lash pinched between my fingers. Kids around me were packing up, throwing on their winterwear. They left in trios, hand in hand with their parents. I couldn’t do the same, I realized. Whatever shape we’d had before was lost. 

When Cátia called my name, I ran to the door. The brass handle turned, unlocking the metal arms that had kept us safe inside. Its hinges swung open and Mami was there. We walked, hand in hand, to our new car—blue, her favorite color.


 

Miriam Cruz is a Portuguese-American writer who grew up in Lisbon. In 2017 she won an international prize, APNLJFC, for her short story “The Price of Money.” Since, she’s earned a Bachelor’s in English with Creative Writing at Northeastern University in London, where she also founded the University’s newspaper, The Waterfront. Later this year she’ll continue her studies with a Masters in English at Cambridge University. In April her short story “The Butcher’s Girl” was published by The Yard.

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