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Table of Contents
About The Book
From the critically acclaimed author of This Burns My Heart comes a “luminous mother-daughter saga” (Entertainment Weekly) about a young woman who is forced to flee 1980s Brazil for California, and in doing so unearths the hidden life of her enigmatic mother.
Mara Alencar’s mother Ana is her moon, her sun, her stars. Ana, a struggling voice-over actress, is an admirably brave and recklessly impulsive woman who does everything in her power to care for her little girl in perilous 1980s Rio de Janeiro. With no other family or friends her own age, Ana eclipses Mara’s entire world. They take turns caring for each other—in ways big and small.
But who is Ana, really? As she grows older, Mara slowly begins to piece together the many facets of Ana’s complicated life—a mother, a rebel, and always, an actress. When Ana becomes involved with a civilian rebel group attempting to undermine the city’s cruel Police Chief, their fragile arrangement begins to unravel. Mara is forced to flee the only home she’s ever known, for California, where she lives as an undocumented immigrant, caregiving for a dying woman. It’s here that she begins to grapple with her turbulent past and starts to uncover vital truths—about her mother, herself, and what it means to truly take care of someone.
A “lovely and heartbreaking” (People) story that is “simultaneously dreamlike and visceral” (The Atlantic), The Caregiver is “a beautiful testament to Samuel Park’s extraordinary talents as a storyteller…that reads, in some moments, like a thriller—and, in others, like a meditation on what it means to be alive…A ferocious page-turner with deep wells of compassion for the struggles of the living—and the sins of the dead” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
THE FIRST INHABITANTS OF COPACABANA were not the fishermen, or even the Indians. They were the two whales that washed ashore in the closing days of August 1858. No one knew how they ended up there. Some said they were beached whales, stranded, victims of rough weather and poor navigation. Others said they were free, healthy visitors, just resting on their bellies. Either way, hundreds of people pilgrimaged to see them, including the emperor and his retinue, braving the rough paths that led to the ocean. The emperor didn’t wear his crown and mantle, just a simple sooty tailcoat with trousers and a cravat. Some say he brought his wife, others his mistress. I would like to think he brought both.
Following closely behind, the members of Rio’s high society rode past the brushwood onto the beach, in horse-drawn carriages. They set up tents so the sun wouldn’t wrinkle their faces. Others came on horseback. Many on foot.
After two days, the whales disappeared. It is said that those who came to see them and missed them stayed anyway, and embarked on a long picnic that lasted three days and three nights. The views after all were magnificent, the beach fortressed by moss-covered granite hills on one side and infinity on the other. The white foam of the seawater bubbled and blistered, rose and fell, the rhythm as even and soothing as that of a mother rocking a crib. The sand mirrored the sun, gold-speckled powder. The breeze tasted of sea salt.
This wasn’t the last time the beach had unexpected visitors. In 1941, four fishermen from the drought-ridden Northeast, men of the humblest ilk, got on a simple raft and sailed for sixty-one days along the coast, without a compass or a map. They wanted to get to the capital and speak to the president. They wished to explain how unhappy they were that they had to share their catch with the owners of the rafts and the middlemen who sold the fish to the markets. As they crossed the length of nearly the entire country, a good 2,500 kilometers, the fishermen fought off storms, waves, and sharks. Only the stars guided them; only their patron saints guarded them. When word got around of their story, other boats began to follow and circle them as they neared Guanabara Bay, turning their arrival into a procession. Hundreds awaited them at the beach. They were greeted as heroes. Their raft was lifted onto a truck like a royal heirloom, as the crowd applauded.
Back in the 1970s, when I was eight, I knew of Copacabana only as my home, not a resting place for mysterious whales or fisherman on a political pilgrimage. I read these old stories in the library at school, but was more concerned with knowing the city itself. I knew how long it took for me to get to the subway station. Which padaria had the most flavorful café con leche. Which restaurant would give me a stomachache afterward, and just to be sure, I religiously took the pills that my mother gave me to prevent tapeworms. I knew which section of the promenade I could go to without running into one of the bullies who liked to pick on me. I didn’t set foot in the ocean for weeks or even months at a time. Its reminders were only the old men in tight swim shorts strolling down the avenue, true Don Juans, and the tanned teenagers dragging folding chairs on the scalloped limestone asphalt. It didn’t compute that someone, somewhere in America had written a song about a nightclub named after our neighborhood.
During the school year, which began in February and ended in December, I went to Getúlio Vargas Municipal School, where that year I was a studious and eager second grader. There was a single classroom, with the teachers coming in and out to lecture us. My favorite subject was Portuguese, because we got to talk about stories during class time. In the warm months, our classroom got as hot as the inside of a mitten. During our short breaks, the more nimble of us raced to the narrow counter of the cafeteria, where we waved our bills at the workers hoping to get their attention before the sodas ran out.
My best friend was a girl named Debora Amaral, and because we were seated alphabetically, she was always one desk behind me, Mara Alencar. I spent half of my classes turning my head so she could whisper in my ear, and not five minutes would pass without me feeling the tip of her pencil poking my back.
After school ended, at noon, we went to each other’s apartments to do our homework and once we were done, we watched American cartoons: the Jetsons, the Flintstones, and Scooby-Doo. We longed for the same American toys for Christmas and Children’s Day: the Easy-Bake Super Oven, a ballerina music box, the Girl’s World life-sized styling doll head that came with roller curlers, a plastic comb, eye shadow crayons, and hair color applicator pens. We often engaged in long debates as to whether the doll’s hair would grow back if we cut it. We never found out the answer, since neither of us had the money to buy one. When school was not in session, Debora went with her parents to visit her grandparents in the distant suburbs of Rio, three hours away, and because I didn’t have many other friends, I either played by myself or tagged along with my mother when she went to work.
My mother did many things for work—cleaning, waitressing, and temping as a receptionist—but then, she was largely working in the movies. Or rather, her voice was working in the movies. Inside a foam-covered, soundproofed booth that smelled of cigarettes, my mother dubbed the voices of American actresses into Portuguese. Our fantasies and daydreams came from that country, sometimes in color and sometimes in black and white, and they required a tribute to our essential differences.
The man who did the male parts had a paunch and too little hair, but his voice was that of a handsome man—a mellifluous instrument—and he knew just how much breath each syllable deserved. My mother and the man never looked at each other, their eyes bound to the phantom people on the screen in front of them, and I thought of how hard it must be to be in two places at once, inside that booth and inside that screen.
As my mother juggled different inflections and intonations, voicing women and girls, I wondered how she knew to match their lips. She had uncanny timing, and knew exactly when to begin speaking and when to stop. Within a single scene, my mother’s silken voice turned throaty or nasal, adulterous or matronly. All these people lived inside of her and took turns emerging from her throat. I was caught between being proud of her and being sad that no one watching the movie later would know who owned that laugh, who owned those cadences. They might even laugh along, not knowing who they were laughing with. My mother was talented, and for the talented mother, a child feels pride. But fear, too.
At the end of one session, I heard my mother talking to the sound engineer. He had long curly hair and wore a necklace made out of small bones. He wasn’t making eye contact with her, instead focusing on putting the earphones and microphones away. The other actor had already left.
“I’m starving, Raul. You can’t say no to me,” she said, standing next to him, in a voice so quiet she must’ve thought I couldn’t hear. “It’s my money, anyway. It just hasn’t made its way into my pocket yet.”
Raul brushed his knuckles against his beard and shook his head. “I can’t. You’re going to have to wait until the end of the month.”
My mother wouldn’t let up. She straightened her back, as if needing to make herself bigger, and crossed her arms. She wore a puffy bright neon yellow jacket, and a heavy, thick red bracelet on her left arm. On her cleavage hung a pair of sunglasses—giant round ones, meant for funerals and dramatic expressions of grief. She’d recently gotten a perm—thick black curls chasing down her round face.
“Did I do a good job or did I do a good job?” she asked.
Raul sighed. “You did an excellent job. As always.”
“And we finished early,” said my mother. “Don’t think I don’t know you pay for the booth by the hour, so I’m pretty sure I saved you some money today.”
“Ana . . .” He was already crumbling a little.
My mother shrugged her shoulders. “Well, you can hire some other girl next time, who’ll take twice as long and cost you twice as much.”
I knew my mother was bluffing. I’d heard her say how much she loved this job and would never let someone take it from her, and how much better it was than anything else she’d ever done. But Raul wouldn’t know that from looking at her face, a careful mosaic of confidence.
“All right, all right,” said Raul, shaking his head. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a pad. He wrote down a receipt for the cash advance, keeping a carbon copy for himself. At that rate, I knew my mother’s payday at the end of the month would be tiny, but what other option was there? Raul took ten five-cruzeiro bills and handed them to my mother.
Afterward, my mother and I sat victorious in a padaria, eating coxinhas. My mother ate ravenously, practically attacking the poor little chicken strips battered in crispy flour. I ate more slowly, savoring my food, gulping my Guaraná soda. My mother got one for me, but not one for her.
The night was a vinyl record, dark and full of scratches, in perfect sync with the needle of God. But in the padaria, our bodies were lit up too much under the fluorescent lights, as if none of us had earned the tenderness of shadows.
“Mom . . .” I said, getting her attention. “What if that man hadn’t given you the money? What would we do for supper?”
My mother looked up from her coxinha. “Have I ever let you go to bed without food in your belly?” she asked, with a hint of woundedness in her voice.
“No,” I lied, already regretting having asked. But when you live so close to the cliff, you wonder what resides at the bottom of it.
My mother pushed away her plate and stared straight into my eyes. “I will always take care of you. I don’t care what I have to do, and I can think of a degrading thing or two.” And at this, she made the sign of the Ghost and the Holy Spirit, “but you’ll always have a roof over your head and food in your belly.”
“I know that,” I said, embarrassed, wishing I hadn’t said anything.
“I may not have money or an education, but I’m not ugly, and I’m not dumb, and I have a big mouth and big ears, and that’s always served me well.”
I turned back to my coxinha, not entirely reassured. She reached for me and brushed her fingers against my hair. She smiled, pressing her cheeks against mine. My mother’s touch had a way of reaching into my heart and letting it beat more tranquilly, a musician turning a metronome.
“Drink your Guaraná,” she said gently. “You need sugar in your blood.”
I gulped from the bottle; it was only half empty, but I asked if I could have another one.
She did not hesitate. “Of course, girl, of course.” She waved grandly for the waiter, as though ordering at the Ritz-Carlton. “Everyone has a peak, and mine’s about to start,” she said with a grin. “Nothing beats the combination of skills and luck.”
On our way home, we walked hand in hand down the boardwalk of Copacabana. My mother strolled casually, taking in the breeze from the ocean. The beach at night wasn’t like the beach during the day; it slept, cocooned, a different kind of endless. Just because you couldn’t see it didn’t mean you couldn’t feel it—its throbbing, its breaths. Streetlights reached far up into the sky and lit our path like a thousand mini-moons. In front of us, we followed the quartz stones made to resemble waves, their sinuous lines making us move forward. The bodies around us walked slowly, the men with their big bellies and the women showing off their tans. The air smelled of beer and fried foods.
When we reached the driveway of the Copacabana Palace, my mother stopped and pointed to a group of tourists getting into a van. They were in town for Carnaval. They looked American, with their yellow hair and sunburned skin, their tight shorts and cameras around their necks.
“You know who they are?” asked my mother, lowering her head toward mine, our cheeks brushing against each other’s. She pointed at them. “They are from America. Everyone there is rich. Even the poor people. When you arrive in America, they hand you a magical plastic card that lets you buy anything you want.”
My mother grabbed my hand and we continued walking. She held me firmly, as though I were something that a pickpocket could take away from her.
“But don’t worry, my girl, one day I’m going to be rich, too, and live in a big house. A psychic once told me so.”
“What’s a psychic?”
“A psychic is a woman—or a man, I suppose they could be men—who tells you what you want to hear in exchange for money,” she said without hesitation.
I laughed, though I wasn’t sure I knew why that was funny. I never knew when my mother was being serious or not. When she was imparting a lesson or just thinking out loud. Either way, from early on, I believed my mother to be special. I suppose every daughter believes her mother to be special, somehow, but when I compared my mother to my friends’ mothers, or to mothers on TV, she really did seem a little different. She didn’t keep secrets from me, she swore in front of me, we shared everything. I knew she was beautiful because of the way men on the street turned to stare at her, making me feel that I wanted to hide her, to keep her for myself. She didn’t always feel like a mom to me. Sometimes she felt like an aunt who let me get away with things, or a friend just visiting for the weekend, one you could be really intense with because you knew they would soon be gone.
“But who needs money, anyway,” said my mother, looking at the beach. “How much do you think those tourists paid to come here?”
“A thousand cruzeiros?” I guessed.
My mother nodded. “Counting airfare and hotel? That sounds about right. Now how much did we spend to check out this view?”
“That’s right. A sale is good, a clearance is even better, but nothing beats free.”
When we arrived at home, I sat on my mother’s lap.
What better place was there? Where else wafted such fragrant air, filling my nostrils with the scent of azalea and jasmine? How large and constant and strong she seemed, though she was only five foot five, really not that much taller than me. She always seemed capable of handling my weight, my bones, my moods. Her legs never fell asleep, her feet were never ticklish. If I went to bed on her lap, she rocked and cradled me, and sometimes when I woke, I found her eyes fluttering, she returning from the same depth of sleep, the same place where I had been.
From as far back as I could remember, and I could remember pretty far back, she liked to nuzzle against the crown of my head and tell me, in a sing-songy voice, “I love you in the morning. I love you in the afternoon. I love you in the evening. I love you in the spring, in the winter, in the summer, in the fall. I love you when you’re good. I love you when you’re naughty.” And she would pause there, as if I needed time to fit all that love inside me. I could feel her breath linger behind my ears, the slight rocking of her body forward. To this day, when I think of my mother’s love, it is from behind me, it is from the parts of my own body that I cannot see: The corner where the lobe of my ear gives way to the jaw. The inches that separate the nape of my neck from my shoulder. She is there, always, whispering, singing, delivering prophecies and incantations.
Carnaval was a good distraction for our money issues at home. During Carnaval, which generally took six days, our neighborhood was flooded with strangers. The lines were long even at the pharmacy and the butcher’s shop. At the padarias, every inch of counter space boasted an elbow or an arm, with people squeezing against one another as though their bodies were accordions. No one believed in orderly lines when they were thirsty. The boardwalks, which were pretty narrow to begin with, became as claustrophobic as tunnels. To make it harder, some people chose not to walk, but instead to stand around to drink and have conversations. They did so with the same sense of entitlement as the lampposts. We had to go around. We had to go around.
Everywhere we went, we could hear music, even if we were kilometers from the Sambadromo, where the parade actually took place. Every padaria, every store, every corner vibrated with percussion, either from a live band, or a TV airing the parade. In our apartment, that’s how my mother and I watched the show. On the Globo channel, we could see, for hours and hours, performers wearing elaborate costumes doing what I could only describe as dance-walking. Shaking, shimmying, then stepping forth, upper bodies swaying from side to side. I wondered how hard it was, to dance and walk at the same time. I could only hear two instruments—tambourines and steel pans. The women wore gigantic feathery headpieces that would put peacocks to shame and in some cases, were peacocks. On their bodies they essentially wore bikinis, but these were the sparkliest and most colorful bikinis I’d ever seen, studded with bijoux and beads, and strings hanging from them. The men wore bright, flowing pants and shirts decorated with glitter and sashes. Float after float went by, many of them featuring enormous statues and monuments of foam and papier-mâché.
A lot of tourists didn’t know this, but Carnaval was a contest. A contest amongst different schools in Rio that taught samba. I tried to watch enough of each school’s presentation to see if I agreed with the judges at the prize ceremony. I never did. The school that won never had, in my opinion, the best costumes or the best floats or the best themes. I liked the floats that were inspired by people we’d learned about in textbooks like the martyr-dentist Tiradentes, or the black courtesan Xica da Silva, who was deemed the most powerful Brazilian woman of the eighteenth century. Or characters in books I’d read as a child, like Emilia, the rag doll that came to life in the Yellow Woodpecker’s Farm. Or Saci-Pererê, the mischievous boy with one leg who never let go of his pipe. But I suppose if you’ve seen those characters before, they lose their novelty. Which is why the unexpected floats inspired by the Star Wars movie or the Watergate scandal garnered so much attention, even though they had nothing to do with us, or with our country.
At first the parade dazzled us, but so much of it was the same, and it took so long to find out who won, that my mother usually changed the channel. But one person who really loved Carnaval was our next-door neighbor Janete. Janete was a travesti. I knew what a travesti was because, like most other Brazilians, I knew of the fashion model Roberta Close and her famous Adam’s apple. Roberta Close was always on TV, or on the covers of magazines. If I didn’t see her, I could hear her ubiquitous song in the speakers of the stores my mother and I went to. Everyone thought of Roberta Close as one of the most beautiful women in the world, except for Janete, who really hated her—a very personal and deep kind of hatred—and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Janete told me that Roberta had once killed every member of her family. But I appreciated Roberta Close, not least because it was through her that I understood Janete. And I understood that Janete was a man who was able to be as beautiful as a woman, a man who was going out of his way to add some glamour and exoticism to everyone else’s lives. Even my second-grade self understood what was probably implicit about the travesti—and about Carnaval itself: that it was one of those things that allowed us to understand who we were, even if that distinction had come by accident, not design.
Janete often came by to borrow sugar or makeup, transactions that should have taken five minutes, but then she’d stay for hours. My mother loved Janete. They had met when my mother was working at a women’s clothing store. Janete came in as a man—a rather imposing, tall black man with a 100-kilowatt smile. She was awkwardly trying to figure out if a dress was her size without being able to try it on. When the owner wasn’t looking, my mother snuck Janete into a fitting room. When the owner of the store, who was Armenian, like all the owners of all the stores, found out, he fired my mother. He couldn’t believe my mother would let a travesti into the fitting room. My mother didn’t care; she liked Janete. It was Janete who later told my mother about the vacancy in her apartment building.
In our living room that evening, my mother was putting makeup on her as though she were a giant living doll.
“You sure I can’t convince you to come?” asked Janete.
“To a Ball G? What am I going to do in a Ball G? I don’t have a pinto.”
“They don’t check at the door!”
“Janete, imagine the guy’s disappointment if he reaches down my skirt and finds nothing there. He would be really upset. Some men don’t like holes and I have a hole. Two holes, in fact. Three, if you’re really counting.”
“But most parties are not G during Carnaval. You know that.”
“No, I’m going to go to bed early. I have to rest my vocal cords. Otherwise they’ll wonder why Katharine Hepburn sounds hungover for the entire movie, and you can tell by the looks of her, that woman is no fun.”
Janete gave my mother a disapproving tap on the knee. “Do I need to remind you that Carnaval is only once a year? And it’s our most important holiday? Home on a holiday is for wilted flowers.”
My mother laughed. “Do I need to remind you that I have a little girl?” My mother pointed at me on the sofa. “She’s small, but she’s not invisible.”
“Mara is old enough to stay home by herself,” said Janete, glancing over at me, smiling. “Aren’t you, my love?”
My mother shook her head. “I’ve had my share of Carnavals in the past. And I already get my share of being groped on the bus every other day of the week.”
She sat back on the sofa and lit a cigarette. I looked around for an ashtray before my mother made one herself. She could make one out of any piece of paper, like origami. She preferred white paper, the kind my homework was often mimeographed on, so I had to be vigilant. I’d shown up to school more than once with black burn marks where my answers should be, and though my mother always apologized profusely, she never stopped doing it.
“How do I look?” Janete asked, twirling for our admiration. She really did look as beautiful as Roberta Close, or even more so. Although I probably felt that way because Roberta Close was far away and Janete Éclair was right there in front of us, and sometimes admiration is just a matter of distance.
“Beautiful. Delicious. You’re going to make a lot of money tonight,” said my mother, between puffs of her cigarette. She let out the smoke slowly, like the women in the old black and white American movies she dubbed. I could see in her eyes a glint of envy. If it weren’t for me, chances were my mother would be going out with Janete.
“Maybe we could drop off Janete wherever she’s going?” I suggested.
My mother squinted. Maybe I’d been wrong to believe she wanted to go out. I was filled with a feeling I’d had before, realizing that I’d acted after reading a person wrong, and then being stuck both with the person’s puzzled reaction and my own surprise that there could be more than one reason for a look, for an expression.
Janete dropped her head in an exaggerated manner, her eyes smiling from temple to temple.
“Your daughter’s a genius. And I could use the help. Navigating all those steps in this dress and these heels is not going to be easy.”
The dress was green and sparkly, molding to her hourglass silhouette. Janete made a quick show of stumbling in her too-tight dress, but I knew she was faking it because she always had exceptional balance, and I’d seen her run after a bus wearing tighter outfits.
My mother looked over at us and she scoffed. Not in a contemptuous way, but in a way that let us know she found us silly and ridiculous. Then she kept her gaze upon us quite intensely, as though she weren’t just seeing us, but seeing her thoughts reflected back to her. I sometimes noticed this faraway glance in her eyes, when I could tell she was thinking of something or someone who wasn’t there in the room. Who else did she need to consider, when we had each other?
“All right, let’s go,” she finally said, smiling. “Afterwards we’ll take advantage of everybody being out to go moonbathing.”
“What’s ‘moonbathing’?” I asked, knowing, but wanting to hear my mother explain it.
“It’s like sunbathing, but you don’t need to put on sunscreen and your skin doesn’t peel off the next day. And unlike the sun, the moon doesn’t have to share space with the shade because it is the shade.”
My mother reached into her closet and pulled out a short dress stamped with swirls, floral patterns, and every color of the rainbow. It had a scooped neck, flowy sleeves, and came with a matching headband. She took off her clothes quickly and put the dress over her, in a single move.
“You look beautiful, Mom.”
“You are correct in your assessment,” said my mother, reaching into the closet again for something for me to wear. There were really only two options—she chose the turtleneck with an embroidered red bib and ruffles on the neck and sleeves, and matching polyester pants with flared legs—the set had been one of my mother’s most extravagant purchases.
“We have to make you look good, too,” said my mother, under Janete’s approving gaze. “After all, I can only be as beautiful as the company I keep.”
I took off the orange nylon shirt with lace-up shoulders I always wore and put on the turtleneck. “And being beautiful means putting on good makeup and nice clothes, right?”
“Of course. When God gives you a canvas, it is a sin not to paint it,” she replied.
“Like Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.”
“That’s right,” said my mother, proudly, stroking my chin. “My smart girl. I’m glad I never talked down to you while you were a baby. You were listening to Tchaikovsky when you were two. You could tell a Portinari painting from a Lasar Segall when you were three. You knew what a travesti was when you were four.”
In the bus, the music was in people’s heads. Everyone dressed like they were on their way to greet it, dance to it, be moved by it. A lot of samba, heavy on percussion, that music that sounded like confetti falling, batons twirling, feet shuffling. I couldn’t actually hear the music—just a lot of loud talking, some laughter—but the notes hung from the low-cut dresses and plunging cleavages, from the bright shirts left unbuttoned by the men, their pants as loose as those of circus clowns. The bus did not feel like a bus full of strangers, and if we were strangers, that was just a momentary phase.
My mother hung her arm around my neck and shoulders, as though she’d turned herself into a coat and draped herself over me. I repositioned so we had the same view. Janete stood—by choice, really—as though she were on display, and needed to be standing to achieve the fullness of effect. She wore a very realistic black wig, paid off in five installments. We’d once heard a scream through the walls and when we came to check on her, we found out she’d spilled water on it. The dress was all asymmetrical lines, a diagonal V revealing her right collarbone and glittering sleeves of different lengths covering each arm. I thought she looked grand, and though there was some snickering, and though I distinctly heard the word bicha, I knew Janete was enjoying herself and our company.
“Janete, I’m going to do your voice,” said my mother. I glanced over at her and she smiled back. “Next time they ask me to dub a movie, I’m going to give your voice to one of the characters.”
“You’re talking nonsense,” said Janete, with a contradictory grin. “Like when you’re doing that American black servant girl, in Gone with the Wind?”
“No,” said my mother, shifting a little, so I had to lean forward for an instant. “When it’s some lady, from a British movie.” My mother thought of British movies as the most exotic thing in the world, what with their posh accents, ornate costumes, and damp-looking castles. “Like Joan Fontaine.”
“I don’t think you can imitate my voice,” said Janete, practically daring her.
“You don’t think so?” my mother echoed, having the vowels and consonants bump into each other and adding an extra flair to the last two words in the sentence. She was imitating her almost perfectly. “You don’t think I can imitate your voice?”
Janete threw her head back and laughed, a throaty laugh that tickled every bit of air around me. “Again!” Janete shrieked. “Do it again.”
The woman in the seat in front of us turned around and, for some reason I couldn’t fathom, gave my mother a dirty look. My mother winked at the woman, and when the woman turned back around, my mother shrugged her shoulders and smiled at me.
“One day I’m going to watch your work,” said Janete, showing us her palms as though that was indicative of truth.
My mother’s movies aired late at night, around midnight, after the news shows ended. She sometimes had me stay up late with her and watch. I’d fall asleep before they were over, listening to my mother profess her love to different men, the anguish in her voice lulling me, her words a series of declarations that made less and less sense as my eyelids fluttered and I sat on the edge of sleep. I knew she wasn’t talking to me, but as she confessed all her feelings and desires using those heightened words, it was hard not to hope for her to find peace at the end.
As the bus started moving again, my mother’s expression had suddenly changed. She looked nervous—a look that I rarely saw, one she never allowed me to see. I’d only seen her like that when she was having a bad dream, and then I’d stare at her deciding if I should wake her. I followed the direction of her gaze, a line that was as clear as though it’d been painted, so that my eyes landed on a man at the front of the bus. He was tall, wore an ill-fitting shirt that looked like it might be silk, but was too shiny to really be so, and his black hair had been gelled back unevenly, so some parts had more volume than others. He looked out of place, and had the distinct alertness of a person from out of town. Though he was separated from us through several layers of bodies, I could tell, quite distinctly, that he was the source of my mother’s fear.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She reached for my arm, saying nothing, and began to get up from her seat. Janete’s nightclub was in Catete, and we were still a long ways from it. Without taking our eyes off the man, we stood up. There was no room for us to move. My mother reached for Janete, who looked surprised to see us getting up as though to leave.
“I have to go,” my mother said.
Janete looked puzzled.
My mother began to push past Janete, who wasn’t going to be left behind without more of an explanation.
“Where’re you going? This isn’t our stop,” said Janete, loudly, a touch of irritation in her voice.
“I have to go,” my mother repeated, trying to squeeze past the people around us. They were forming a solid wall, not a centimeter to be spared. I kept asking where we were going and what was wrong, but she wouldn’t answer me. The people around us, unsure of why we were moving to the back of the bus, were unwilling to make way. Somebody actually cursed at my mother. I could feel my mother’s palm getting clammy in my hand. She looked back, right past me, and I mimicked her, shadowlike, and saw that the man, who hadn’t noticed us before, was now looking in our direction. The expression on his face changed, and if before he looked merely tired, now he looked alert and angry, as though my mother had picked his pockets when I wasn’t looking. In that bus, in that moment, my mother and I no longer seemed anonymous, and I was surprised to realize how much of a friend anonymity was, how much of a comfort.
“Out of my way, out of my way, please,” my mother kept saying, as she fought against the current. She was openly panicking by now, squeezing herself by force through the crowd. Several people gave her dirty looks, and some others let out short expressions of complaint. But my mother was a pit bull. When I looked back, I saw that the man was coming after us. I had never before felt such a gallop in my heart. My mother’s body was the barometer that allowed me to measure the amount of joy or pleasure to be had, or, in this instance, fear.
When we reached the turnstile, the fare collector shook his finger No, but my mother ignored him and crouched on the floor, squeezing under the metal bar with her skinny body. I did the same. Once we got up, we were greeted by what felt like a thousand stares, from passengers both sitting and standing. Their big, round, accusing eyes, locked on to us, reminded me of owls in the night, perched at ease in their own element.
“Next time you must exit through the front,” I could hear the fare collector fuming.
Finally, after what felt like an impossibly long time, the bus stopped. The doors opened in front of us with a loud, yanking noise, and before the new trove of passengers could board, my mother and I rushed down the steps. As we did so, our linked fingers felt like too-tight knots.
As we stepped away from the bus, my mother seemed to dip into enough safety to allow us to look back. We saw, through the window, the man stopped by the turnstile. He was taller and heavier than I realized, with deep-set eyes and thin lips. The fare collector was standing now, physically restraining him. They looked like they were having an argument. The man pointed to my mother. He kept pointing, more angrily each time, in the direction that we’d gone, and the fare collector kept shaking his head.
The bus started moving again. The last thing I saw, though, was Janete, in another window, looking out at us, her eyes forlorn, misbegotten. Left by herself, under the lights of the bus, she still looked grand and glamorous, but there was a sadness about her that I’d never noticed before. It was so clear now, seeing her among strangers, with the rectangular frame of the window flattening her, telling me what to pay attention to. It wasn’t the sadness of my mother and me leaving her, I was stubbornly sure. I sensed something generous about her sadness, an outward trajectory. As though it came with a need to provide solace to us.
“Why did we have to leave?” I asked my mother, as we watched the bus drive away. “Who was that man?”
My mother took a deep breath, still recovering.
“I hate Carnaval,” she said, simply. “It washes off all the scum onto the beach.”
We took the 219 bus back to Copa, and the entire time my mother kept glancing over her shoulder. But back in our apartment, she seemed at ease as we sat in front of the glowing television, waiting to see who’d won Carnaval that year.
“It’s all corrupt,” my mother said, the most loquacious she’d been since we got home, her legs on top of each other on the couch. She had pretty much clammed up after we’d left Janete, answering my queries with monosyllables or non sequiturs. I left her alone, because when you grow up with a moody mother, you learn and relearn the futility of wanting things to make sense.
“What do you mean?” I wasn’t asking for the meaning of the word corrupt, which greeted me from every newsstand from the time I was able to read. But I was happy to hear her voice, and I wanted more of it.
“They never give it to the school that did the best job,” my mother explained, as the winners were about to be announced. “They always give it to the school that provides the most money to the association. It’s not really fair to the dancers. Or the artists and designers, who work so hard all year. The government wants to put on a good show for the rest of the world, and they meddle in Carnaval the way they do everything else.”
My mother rarely spoke of the military regime, and I found it strange that she would bring it up so suddenly. “Do the dancers get paid? How do they get chosen to work on the floats?” I asked, changing the subject, watching as a middle-aged man in a tan suit—who looked nothing like Carnaval—stood at the podium, accepting the prize.
“I don’t know. But it’s time to go to bed,” said my mother, as though we’d been up just to find out the winner, and not because the bus ride with Janete had taken the wind out of our sails and we needed time to recover. She turned the knob to shut the TV off, and the man on the podium shrank down to a single line and then disappeared.
It was understood that on nights like this, when it was likely to be noisy outside, with fights breaking out and drunks hollering, that my mother would let me share her bed instead of me sleeping on my own twin on the other side of the room. I climbed under the blue mosquito netting hanging over her bed, being very careful not to lift the netting too high, just in case there was an insect nearby waiting for a chance to sneak in. Years later, I would take for granted that if I were awakened in the middle of the night by hysterical laughter outside the window, or the sound of sirens, or a woman screaming, I’d be able to bury my ear into her shoulder and fall back asleep.
Reading Group Guide
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Mara Alencar has been caring for others her entire life. Her mother, Ana, works as a voice-over actress in Brazil, doing various jobs to care for her daughter, but it’s young Mara who supports her mother emotionally. But when Ana becomes desperate for money, she agrees to a job she shouldn’t have taken. The catastrophic results of this fateful decision change everything for Mara irrevocably.
Years later, Mara is living as an undocumented resident of the United States, working as a caregiver for Kathryn, who has been diagnosed with cancer. Her experiences grappling with life and death and caring for someone else remind Mara of what she left behind in Brazil and the ghosts in her past she’s tried so hard to escape.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Mara has been caring for others since a young age—first as a daughter to her mother, Ana, and later as the focus of her profession. How do you think these experiences of looking after others, often before her own welfare, have shaped her?
2. The mother/daughter relationship depicted in The Caregiver is a difficult one. Why do you think it’s so important to Mara to let Ana think that she provides well for her daughter?
3. Mara learns about corruption in Brazil at an early age as she eagerly waits to see which school won Carnaval. How do you think that affects her view of the world over the years?
4. As Mara makes clear, Brazil’s dictatorship was put into place by the American government, and yet she chooses to move to the US. How does she see America? Does she consider it a land of freedom and promise or a place of contradictions?
5. When Mara gets into a car accident in the present day, it’s clear that the other driver was probably at fault. Why does he react so viciously to Mara?
6. Kathryn talks about leaving her house to Mara in her will. Why do you think Kathryn is so eager to think of Mara as a daughter? Why do you think Mara is so resistant to the idea?
7. One of Mara’s roommates, Bruno, specifies that he did not arrive in the United States illegally—he simply overstayed his visa. Why do you think this distinction is important to him?
8. While a person can enter a country illegally, or overstay a legal visa, Mara questions how a person can actually be illegal. Why is the questioning of this well-accepted terminology important?
9. When Mara finally confronts Police Chief Lima, he insists that she take a bag of money and promise never to contact her mother again. Why do you think Lima is so desperate for Mara to take the money? Why do the calls stop after that confrontation?
10. Mara didn’t get to choose whether to be a professional caregiver. What career choice do you think she would have made if it had been up to her? Do you think caregiving comes naturally to Mara?
11. Discuss Kathryn and Mara’s reasoning for needing—or not needing—a reason to want to live. Is the desire to stay alive reason enough? How do you think Mara’s response to Kathryn, that Kathryn is too young to die, relates to Mara’s inability to accept her mother’s death?
12. Why do you think learning the truth about Ana devastated Mara to such a degree, to the point where she leaves Brazil and everything she knows for a new life in America?
13. Mara never discovers the identity of her father, though he is mentioned occasionally throughout the book. Why doesn’t Mara want to learn more about him or who he is?
14. The author of The Caregiver, Samuel Park, died shortly after finishing the book. Why do you think he chose to make caregiving during illness the center of this novel, knowing that he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2014?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Samuel Park passed away in 2017. Read his New York Times essay “I Had a 9 Percent Chance. Plus Hope.,” which is included in the back of the book, and discuss the effects of Park’s illness diagnosis, treatment, and recurrence on the book as a whole.
2. Is there a time in your own adult life where you felt like important choices were made for you, rather than making the decision for yourself? Take turns explaining a time this happened to you and how you dealt with it.
3. The Caregiver provides a glimpse of life in Brazil under a dictatorship. Read another book set during that time, such as City of God by Paulo Lins, and compare the depiction of Brazilian life in the two novels.
4. Lazarus isn’t in the book very much, but he plays a pivotal role in Mara’s life. He seems more accepting of his father’s crimes and misdeeds than Mara is of her mother’s. Discuss what this book may have been like if Lazarus had been the main character.
Why We Love It
A poignant multigenerational mother-daughter story, one that centers on a daughter investigating the life of her enigmatic mother…It is a story about unveiling the people in our lives we often think we know best…feels timely for its close focus on immigration, brutality, dictatorships, and strong female leads…a story that leaves you full of hope and wonder and awe. —Zack K., Associate Editor on The Caregiver
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 25, 2018)
- Length: 288 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501178788
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