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By Fernanda Cunha
At my parents’ new house there’s a cat who is always by the big-limbed tree in the front yard. It’s more bones than anything else; a frail thing prone to keeping its distance, so we assume it’s a stray. It responds every time I call it, “kitty” in a high-pitched voice and it’s so malnourished I can barely stand to look at it. The first time I thought about feeding it I called my mother to ask permission. She said, “Pergunta o seu pai,” ask your father, who I thought would say no, não, absolutely not, so I told her, “goodbye” before hanging up and crossing the yard in a quick movement of guilt.
Eventually the cat, who we have been calling a range of names – Scooter, Stark, and Kitty – has a litter box in a corner of the house and his own spot on the faded, faux leather couch. It’s not any of my doing. My sister buys him his necessities and my father helps her pay when she takes him to the vet. Mostly he eats the food they buy for him and curls up at the end edge of the couch. We see more of him when the temperature drops, but he’s restless and spends most of the days outside in the neighborhood across or in the neighbor’s front yard. He seems to live in perpetual fright, making his living around us in careful steps. We worry, and wonder why without imagining any of the details.
As an immigrant I’ve been conditioned to think about home, but I especially wonder about it after his appearance; not just the country below the equator, America’s roots, but the word home, the idea of it. The books I’m slowly recovering after my last move, my sister’s bookshelf when I’ve run out of things to read and am desperate, the smell of my mother’s home cooked meals, and the three-hour intervals of the smell of coffee. In the morning my father’s footsteps getting ready for work as loud as daybreak dew coming up from asphalt, and a “goodnight,” always, before the still dark of sleep. These have always been constants, in Brazil and here, except now Obama is on TV talking about America as a nation of immigrants again. Except now we half listen because we all know better. Instead we keep eyes on Scooter/Stark/Kitty, flinching when he inhales too deeply or trembles for minutes without stop.
I wonder if he knows we’re different. If the food smells something like wilderness, free, untamed, or if he can tell words fall in cadence from our tongues. We speak to him in a botched mix of Portuguese and English, but he seems indifferent, and has taken to sitting on my father’s lap while my father watches a futbol game on his computer or coos at him in his country Brazilian accent.
Can he tell even my father is afraid, despite saying otherwise? Does hear us when we build a back-up plan in case of deportation? Which seems eminent, which feels close, which stains everything.
I wonder if there’s some inherent difference in this home we’ve made here and all the other homes he must have come from. I don’t have to wonder if he remembers them because his limbs shaking are enough evidence of a past that persists. I wonder if he tries to forget, or has to remind himself to remember, to actively close eyes and day dream of it so it can exist as something still tangible inside.
Sometimes, mid-breakfast or during one of the slow crawling Atlanta traffic hours from work, I force myself to remember Brazil because I am afraid of what it means if I can’t, if the corners and walls no longer turn or stand solid in wherever place memories fester. I have not set foot in Brazil in eleven years. Is it enough to say, “My home country,” and know it is true? To close my eyes and feel it, always, southern hemisphere, phantom roots reaching for familiar ground. To see behind eyelids the weekend feirinhas and VCR stores, family owned bakeries at every corner, and street cars where they sold the newest Monica comics. To remember minute details, like the abandoned church a block away from my cousins’ and the blackened windows in failed businesses.
To then open my eyes and realize I am standing in a country that still denies my family’s existence, and to stand with the knowledge of never being able to call it our home, not even now, after a decade and some years. And still, building a home in it anyway, carving one from abandoned wood that once looked vaguely like a house. This is what my parents have done, fixed a beautiful home for themselves out of an old, rustic thing.
In truth it is merely an act of existing, but I like to think of it as an act of rebellion, and something half way to extraordinary.
I think about Scooter. Not about where he started, which is inconsequential against the aftermath, but where he ended up. I think about him taking shelter in hidden corners until he’s shooed away, or grows restless, or runs out of places to look for food, and repeat, spine strong despite shaky steps, until one day he ends up in our front yard.
I remember every home we lived in before leaving Brazil. Memories less like slanted sunlight through windows, entire spaces where we did our living ablaze, and more like faded blueprints of corners I can remember turning. The tall dividing wall I’d watch cousins and family friends climb to snatch mangoes from the neighbor, and the ceiling to floor windows in that first house that kept no secrets and had all of us wide eyed. The ten-by-ten laundry room in the apartment where we hung all of our clothes to dry, wire from wall to wall, and the rough ceramic floor of the veranda in São Paulo where I can’t remember anything bad ever happening. I can see the white wall in my parents’ bedroom in Goiânia that we drilled a hole into so it could hold the only air conditioning we ever had in Brazil – it was the last house my father ever lived in before leaving for the vast promised land of the United States. Afterwards my sister and I would sleep there with my mother, door bolt twisted and locked. There’s the sheer indigo memory of the last living room we ever existed in in our home country, the one my father only ever got to see through pixelated, dial-up moving pictures, and the narrow hallway on the outside of the house that in hindsight feels like a metaphor.
We ended up here because things got bad in Brazil, our money was not enough and the opportunity presented itself, and so my parents took it. Not in an act of selfishness, or greed, or lack of discipline, but the want and the need to do better, unknowing of the consequences.
My parents did not come to the United States with the knowledge that they would be branded criminals. They came bright eyed, hopeful for an honest chance at the “American Dream”—the grand myth. A decade and some years later it includes the house we live in now. The bathrooms small, but more grand than any of the Americans’ bathrooms I help my mother clean, a big back yard for a dog that will only listen to commands spoken in Portuguese, and a guest room for family that does not bend with distance.
The American Dream includes blood that runs cold with rational and irrational fear, and a bitterness that feeds itself. A New York Times article titled, “Should Immigrants Have Human Rights?” It includes the seed of the thought– no, the tumor of it, a thing that does not bloom but festers outwards. The feeling of grand insignificance that rises up whenever the politics of our existence do. The growth of it into something beyond insignificance – something laced with malice. My mother on the driver’s seat of the car even though she shouldn’t be, but back then there was no other option, telling me, voice shaken, “My only regret is that we’ve put you and your sister in this position.” That same tumor, reaching as far as our house, and me not finding the voice to dispute it, kill it dead, to say, não, no, claro que não.
My father on the couch convinced of his evil, and I convinced of his magic.
When my family takes Scooter to the vet for the first time the nurse tells them he’s very sick, and that it’s a wonder he’s alive – that he exists at all.
Here is our magic, I want to tell her – a homeless cat that should not exist finding shelter in a home made by hands that should not be building – it is quiet and disguised, and it manifests like miracles.
Fernanda Cunha is a writer, a native of Brazil living in the United States, and a student of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University – in any particular order. Her writing focuses on the humanization of immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, and is drawn from spending her first nine years in the the country as an undocumented immigrant.