Dona Celia is absolutely certain that the dress she is wearing is the perfect choice for the occasion of greeting her son and his American wife, yes, wife. Alberto just called; they have already passed through customs and will arrive in less than an hour. “Mamae,” he’d said, “Mamae, eu e Ruth chegamos.” It had been a long time since she’d felt outrage over the fact that her own son spoke no Italian. In fact, English is his second language. But how she’d like to speak Italian to her boy from now on. For fifty-three years, from the time they arrived in Rio, Domenico insisted on speaking Portuguese at home. Celia, who immediately found she had a gift for languages, retaliated against her husband’s ridiculous demand by delivering long discourses in Portuguese in response to his simple, fumbling questions.
Now he is dead. Celia pushes herself up from the couch, forcing her shoulders back, standing as straight as possible—practice for when Alberto and Ruth arrive. The steps she takes down the hall should be regular as drumbeats and not include the occasional drag of her heel against the floor. Not all women at seventy-eight are plagued by the same physical worries, but not all women fell so drastically from grace. She opens the door to the bathroom, which is tiled a rosy pink, a color the landlord chose and that she has been forced to live with since leaving her lovely house in Ipanema for this small rental in Copacabana. Celia cannot even afford to have her maid for more than three hours each morning—enough to make sure the bathroom and kitchen are regularly cleaned. There is nothing more repulsive than a dingy kitchen or an unclean toilet. She pushes up the lid and sits. When the house Domenico had designed in Niteroi had crumbled due—it was claimed—to an unsound design, the owners in the neighboring buildings sued his firm. Even then Celia never confessed that she had gone to Niteroi and had seen that house newly erected on the ocean front—the exact replica of the one that he’d built for her in Rio overlooking the Ipanema beach. “Hillary Goodman” was written in white cursive on the awning. Her beautiful house replicated for her tutor, Miss Hillary Goodman! The lawsuit swallowed all their savings, but even when they were forced to move and sell off her most beloved furniture, Celia kept her mouth shut. She had even had the decency to invite Miss Goodman over and tell her in person that she could no longer afford her English lessons. She had smiled at her husband’s mistress. “Miss Goodman,” Celia had said, “this is to be our final session.” Yes, she’d said it exactly that way, and she had poured Miss Goodman a second cup of tea, and she had waited. That American lady, plump and blonde and twenty years Celia’s junior, but still ripe beyond middle age, was given ample opportunity to admit the truth and beg forgiveness. When she said nothing, Celia added, “In fact, we can no longer even afford to live here in this house that my husband built for me.” Celia had not taken her eyes off her tutor. “Though I will never understand how they managed to bring a case against the architect and why my husband is not even fighting the case. How can a house’s demise be the fault of its design?” Demise had been the word Celia chose and lingered over, though, under any other circumstances, Miss Goodman would have suggested a word more suitable to the situation. “The law demands it, though, and we have no choice but to submit.”
“I understand perfectly, Dona Celia,” that woman had responded, replacing her tea cup and folding her small white hands in her lap, looking nothing like a woman whose house had so recently caved in on itself. “And I am sorry for your loss.”
Celia stared, unable to completely obfuscate her admiration for such unflinching talent. There she sat in the original version of her own destroyed living room, betraying no sign of sadness or even confusion. Had she been the one who seduced Domenico into designing that house, or was the house his seduction of her? Domenico was so convinced of his own ideas that he never would have suspected that Celia had known all along, but what about Miss Goodman? Did she really think that Celia would never find out? In any case, there she sat, arching her thin brows at the appropriate times, sipping her tea. “I did hear about what happened in Niteroi and I am sorry, indeed,” she said, replacing her cup. “In any case, our lessons would have needed to end. I am proud to say that I have completed my feng shui accreditation here in Rio and am finally moving back to the United States to become a feng shui consultant.”
“Ah,” said Celia. “Time for you to leave Brazil anyway, then.” If Miss Goodman blushed, Celia did not perceive it. Shortly after Miss Goodman’s return to the United States and their move to Copacabana, Domenico’s health began to decline.
Having ceased to believe in God years ago, Celia certainly won’t begin again now, but what a blessing it would be in this moment to have faith enough to ask God why her son would marry an American and decide to stay in the United States when he was supposed to have been away only one more year, just long enough to earn a shiny U.S. law degree and return to begin his own practice in Rio. He had been working in Domenico’s firm up until the disaster, and he could have found another job in architecture, but he told his father he’d decided to change professions and temporarily move to the United States to study law. Celia was surprised at how easily Domenico conceded to this, just as he’d conceded to being sued; she actually missed his terrible anger. He didn’tbeven attempt to fight the accusations against him or rail at Alberto for wanting tobleave architecture and begin a whole new career as a lawyer. Celia was the one, inbthe end, who had to intervene. She told her son that she’d sanction his leaving onlybif he promised to return to practice in Rio. Alberto should be planning his permanentbreturn to her, but just three months ago he met Ruth, and now they are married. Three months, Lord! But Celia has no business speaking to God. She wouldn’t profess belief in a Supreme Being any more than she would chop off the lush silver hair she wears twisted to a tight bun just above the nape of her neck.
They will be here any minute, and there is the language to consider. With his wife visiting, Alberto will expect her to speak English. Miss Goodman had been as excellent a teacher as Celia was a student, and it had taken Celia no more than a few lessons to discover all the falsehoods upon which the English language is structured, the multiple ways it obscures the truth in order to prize boldness over grace. Consider, for instance, nouns with no gender. Consider how Miss Goodman explained that English does not focus on gender distinctions the way Romance languages do, where the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb essere— to be—has a masculine ending even if the subject of the sentence is hundreds of women and only one man. As long as a man is part of the group, the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb essere will have a masculine ending. The lack of this gender agreement between verb and subject in English strikes Celia as ridiculous. Romance languages are more realistic. Why shouldn’t the male presence coopt the entire verb? That is the more accurate reflection of gender interactions, but English is either too obtuse to recognize this truth or too invested in the pretense of equality. It is, no doubt, a great convenience to have the option to ignore formalities or mask indiscreet details: the gender of a “friend,” the second- person plural or singular, the distinction between who does and doesn’t deserve the respect of a formal address.
And then there’s the matter of the passive. Miss Goodman—the person she believed Miss Goodman to have been back then, anyway—commented that Celia, otherwise so obviously gifted in languages, was an over-user of the passive voice. A failing? Celia had asked. The passive—in its elegant and ladylike refusal to point the finger—lends the respect so deeply lacking in most conversation. It was a joy to Celia to discover how many more opportunities present themselves in English for using the passive. Why shouldn’t she indulge? It is precisely the passive voice (and this is exactly what Celia insisted to that cow who should have been in the twinned version of her beloved house when the evil thing went down)—it is precisely the passive that transmits the subtlety of daily action: How much more true to say, “The milk is being drunk by the cat” than “The cat drinks milk”? Cats do not actively drink their milk; it is in the cat nature to see milk and, mindlessly, to drink it. It is the milk that is being drunk. It is the speaker’s obligation to insist that the person or thing receiving the action, the object so easily overlooked, be brought to the fore. If Celia quantifies all of the action of which she has been the recipient, it far outweighs the action that she has perpetuated. The English-speaking world has a chance to acknowledge this injustice, but instead it bristles at the prospect—condemning the passive voice, pushing ahead with bold, blustery sentences glorifying active subjects, nouns followed by verbs, no show of deference, recognition, or even mercy for the object noun, robbed of its agency, that must just take and take and take it.
Despite a good deal of pushing, Celia is only able to urinate. She gets up, flushes, washes her hands, pulls the door shut, and walks back down the hallway. Domenico had designed the hallway in their lovely house to accommodate Celia’s wishes for a corridor flooded with light. The long stretch of windows overlooking the ocean had made it a radiant place. Celia wonders if Alberto ever thinks about his childhood in Ipanema, all the advantages he was given, all that he enjoyed. Just as Celia enters the living room, she sees Soccorro move toward the door leading to the kitchen.
Celia returns to the couch and sits. “Kindly shut the window in Senhor Domenico’s room, Soccorro. I can hear the chaos from here.” Celia is still unused to the noise. Back in Ipanema, only a soft buzz permeated the air; it may have been— despite her atheism—the voice of God. Who is to say it wasn’t?
“And I will close the curtain.”
“Yes. The curtain in Senhor Domenico’s room should remain closed, of course. You have fixed the guest room, no?” she asks for the fourth or fifth time.
From the window in the guest room, it is possible to see a snippet of the Copacabana beach dotted with colorful umbrellas. Leaning out, one looks straight down on the awning of the café Domenico had frequented before becoming too ill. Soccorro leaves the room, and Celia says out loud in English, “He is dead.” That is precisely how she announced this truth to Alberto yesterday, two hours after the doctor called her with the news. She had rushed to the hospital, but it was indeed too late. From the hospital phone, she’d called Alberto’s number in New York, and he’d put her on speaker-phone so his wife could hear as well. Celia had made the announcement in English so Ruth could understand. She soon found herself shouting into the receiver, forced to speak over Alberto’s mournful yelps. Trying to comfort him, she insisted, “He was sick, darling; it was time. He didn’t suffer. He died in his sleep. I’d always thought we’d bury him back home in Italy—in Montemurro—but in the end he insisted on being buried here.” She swallowed over the lump of pain, the thought of Alberto’s hurt. She waited. When no one spoke, she said, “Alberto, you must call a priest. Find a priest in Rio and call him. That is something I cannot bring myself to do.” Celia could hear Alberto’s footsteps moving away from her, into the depths of whatever room he and his wife were standing in—his sobs retreating as he left Celia there on the phone with only Ruth nearby.
“I am so sorry,” Ruth said.
“Yes,” Celia replied, “Thank you. I do hope to meet you one day.” She heard Alberto blow his nose, and when he spoke again, his voice was firm.
“You will meet her tomorrow,” he said. “We will get a plane tonight, Mamae,” he’d promised. “We will be there.” We.
Celia crosses her legs and rests both hands on her right knee. When she was younger, she dressed in pastels, evoking flowers and dawn, but when she turned seventy, she began dressing in bold dark colors that highlight her fair skin and hair. Being in mourning will be no hardship as far as dress is concerned, and she is glad for the subtle reference to the night sky. It is absurd that so many ladies her age wear flouncy hats and pastels. They dye their hair and go about in ridiculous costume, fooling no one. The triumph of age should be believability. The elderly often do not understand that achieving believability is the only way to avoid being dismissed. Many older women turn to cruelty to retain a measure of power. Cruelty can hit the mark; it is convincing in a way that love and kindness rarely are. Passion, of course, is the hardest to sustain, and it is unbecoming in old age, too grandiose, a childish outburst.
When the buzzer finally sounds, she folds her hands in her lap and turns to watch Soccorro, who lumbers back into the living room, stopping briefly to bend down and lean her feather duster against the display cabinet—a piece of furniture far too big and dark for the room. Celia stares at that duster left to roost like an exotic pink bird, and then she closes her eyes and listens as her servant walks past her. During one of their first tutorial sessions, Miss Goodman advised Celia on rearranging her furniture. “Move your couch so that you face the door,” she said, pointing to the place. “You want to be in a commanding position. According to the principles of feng shui, you want to be able to see who is entering.” Celia’s first thought when she discovered the house in Niteroi was that Miss Goodman’s couch was positioned exactly as her own. This realization sunk to the base of her spine so that maintaining it in a state of dormancy demanded such careful attention and quiet movement. Now her couch is placed so that her back faces the door; she’d prefer to submit blindly to those entering—it is far better not to lay eyes on the monster.
Celia hears Soccorro pick up the intercom. “Allo,” she says. Celia listens as the receiver is replaced and as Soccorro opens the door to stand at the threshold in her
large, patient way. Neither of them speaks.
Celia closes her eyes. When Alberto was last in Rio, it was Christmas, and the sun blazed so hot they napped every afternoon for the entire week that he was there. That was a delicious stretch of time. Even Domenico had seemed almost content.
Celia hears it—Alberto’s chuckle, the initial happy sound of his homecoming. She hears Soccorro step back to welcome him, and then she hears—for the first time ever—the voice of this daughter-in-law, who has been taught to say, “Prazer. Muito prazer.” Her accent is not too strong. Familiar—yes, so familiar. Oh! Never mind. “Water under the bridge,” as the Americans say, “forgive and forget,” those same Americans quip—so endlessly capable of climbing back into the saddle and forging onward. Celia opens her eyes. She stands and turns to see Alberto. Ruth is behind him, but Celia keeps her eyes trained to her son.
“Mamae!” he walks towards her, arms outstretched.
“Figlio!” She looks at his midsection. He has filled out somewhat.
“Mamae, are you okay?” he asks, eyes widening. “Oh, Sweet Mamae!” Celia
watches as he comes toward her; she does not even glance at Ruth—not yet. She need only stand; he is suddenly beside her, slipping both arms around her waist. Leaning against him, she embraces him, looking down at his shoes, red as raw meat, and surprised by his substance as she always is after a long stretch without him. He’d been such a thin boy! “Mio figlio!” she whispers, hands clasped up around his neck now, moving to press her ear against his chest, where she smells the cool, regurgitated air of the plane and the scented hand soap they place in the bathroom. Below those recently imposed smells is a lemony scent that comes from cologne, laundry detergent, or shaving cream—something from his daily life back in New York. After a good minute, Alberto steps back from Celia’s embrace, takes both her hands, and straightens so she can finally see him. He is forty-seven years old, this son of hers, older than ideal for a man just starting out in a new career as a lawyer and embarking on marriage. His nose lords over his face, his jowls are fleshier than she remembers—so like Domenico’s—and his temples are peppered with gray. He cups his hands and slides them up her forearms so she can rest an elbow in each— two scrawny birds she places in his keeping. “Oh, goodness! It’s been six months since you were here. He is dead, figlio,” Celia repeats aloud again in English, determined to be a welcoming hostess to his wife. Celia splays her fingers against his
chest. “I am sorry not to be more prepared . . .”
“Mamae, no one prepares for this,” he promises, adding more softly, “I am here, now.” Alberto purses his lips and says, “We are here.”
“Of course.” Celia plucks her elbows from Alberto’s hands one at a time.
“Come Ruth,” she beckons, turning and smiling at the solid woman standing next to Soccorro. “Welcome,” Celia says, noticing then that Ruth is wearing braces. She has to be at least forty, and there she is with braces and silver earrings to match. Celia is drawn to Ruth’s mouth, the full red lips framing their intricate weave of metal. “I am sorry you have to come under these conditions, but I am pleased to finally meet you.”
“My condolences,” Ruth says, moving forward, both hands pressed together in front of her breastbone in a prayerlike position. When Ruth is close enough, Celia briefly closes her eyes and leans to kiss the expansive flesh of Ruth’s cheek.
“Well,” Celia begins, straightening, but she does not go on. Though she has never before allowed herself to indulge in the freedoms of speaking in a foreign tongue, Celia is clear about the advantages: one is forgiven for odd pauses and phrases and politely excused from logical sequence and meaningful sentence structure. In Portuguese and English, she has always been so good, so correct. It is time to be freer.
“I wish Ruth could have met Papai,” Alberto says, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. Her boy looks tired, and Celia can see that the fine lines on his face have deepened. Ruth does not qualify as fat, but her face is smooth as a baby’s bottom
and almost as round, the features haphazardly—but not unpleasantly— arranged. Her brown hair has been combed back into a neat ponytail. She makes no effort to hide that mouth full of silver which back in Italy, especially during wartime, would have been a liability.
“Here you are, newly married, and your husband is already in mourning,” Celia says, shaking her head. There was a time when Celia trusted her own eyes to charm just about anyone who looked at them. Two dark plums so large and soft—how many compliments she’d received. “Tell me everything,” Celia says, breathing in through her nostrils and returning to the spot on the couch where she has been sitting all morning. She motions Ruth and Alberto to join her. “Tell me about your wedding. I’ve heard so little. Domenico’s illness, you know, kept me from many things.”
“Oh,” Ruth says, her eyes flicking towards Alberto and then back to Celia. She sits on the couch in what should have been Alberto’s spot. “There isn’t so much to tell; we just went to City Hall. We had a few friends over afterward and both went back to work the next day.”
Celia nods and says, “Ruth, please excuse my English.”
“Oh,” Ruth says, fingers poised as though to touch the back of Celia’s hand, “your English is excellent.” Hillary Goodman had had a good set of American teeth—small, even white blocks securely locked into a healthy spread of gums.
“Soccorro,” Celia calls out, slipping her hands to her lap. “Soccorro, faz um espresso pra a gente?”
“Perfect,” Alberto says with a nod at Ruth. He is sitting in Domenico’s chair. “An espresso.”
Soccorro is dusting the back corner of the room. “Si, Dona Celia.” She puts
down her duster again and moves toward the kitchen. Domenico had taught Soccorro to make a good espresso. She had not been quick in learning, but eventually she’d succeeded in making an Italian coffee, rich and dark with a twinge of brutality in the swallow. Before falling ill, Domenico always assumed the task of brewing coffee, demanding Soccorro’s full attention to the process. “When I die,” he used to say, “You will have to make it for the Senhora. My wife has never made a coffee, and I do not want my death to be the catalyst for her learning how.” This remark did not go unappreciated by Celia, who, in return, never compromised on the Italian coffee beans she continued to buy from the small store in Ipanema, even though, these past five years, that commitment has meant a three-kilometer walk.
“I assume you drink espresso, Ruth. Not all Americans do,” Celia says, uneasy that her son is sitting so far from her.
“Yes, thank you. Alberto introduced me to espresso, and I have become a regular,” Ruth laughs, leaning back. She shifts a little sideways to look at Celia.
Celia smiles. “Alberto tells me nothing, so I am afraid it is up to you to do the honors. Tell me about yourself.”
“Oh, well, I work,” Ruth says, her cheeks reddening a little as she waves a hand in Alberto’s general direction. “I’m a teacher,” she says. “I teach fifth-grade language arts. Gifted children.” Ruth pauses, cocks her head. “There’s a test they pass to get into the program,” she continues. “They pass the test, and I teach them.” Ruth looks down and smoothes a pant leg, and Celia nods. “That’s how it works. It’s American-style education, of course.” Ruth smiles again, then purses her lips. Celia, too, purses her
lips, making an effort to control herself. Contractions really do test her patience! This terrible result of American efficiency. Is time actually saved by saying “that’s” rather than “that is”? Does the pronunciation of those extra two letters take such a toll on the speaker? Of course, two plus two plus two adds up; maybe over a lifetime the contracted letters equal an entire discourse, and no one wants such waste. Efficiency has infiltrated Brazil as well—it used to be that people here made house calls, but house calls are a dead institution. Time has become the most precious commodity. Celia read somewhere that each cigarette takes two seconds off a life. Perhaps a smoker who uses contractions breaks even? Ruth undoubtedly has entire classes for her gifted students devoted to making efficient use of the English language. The United States might truly lag behind the world were the gifted to waste time!
“So your concentration is reading and writing,” Celia remarks quietly; it is not a question.
“Yes, vocabulary and grammar as well.”
Alberto clears his throat and announces, “She is wonderful, Mamae, her students come back years later to let her know how wonderful she is.”
“Ah, I would expect nothing less,” Celia says, forgiving her boy for being taken in by this woman, but not for marrying her. Un debole the Italians say—“a weakness,” so much better than the English “crush,” which is far too strong and hostile a word. The weakness one person feels for another—a crippling that infiltrates the body, most dangerous when reciprocated, leaving one vulnerable to a host of related afflictions —despair, indifference, cowardice. It is far better—painful as it may be— when the debole remains unrequited.
What did Celia perceive when Domenico declared that he returned her affections and their marriage ensued? How many years into their bliss did it happen that she was suddenly taken aback, struck by the boniness of his knees and the fastidiousness with which he ate—like a girl, she would think. He ate like a girl attending her first soiree. “It must be a pleasure to teach bright children. Have you done other kinds of teaching?”
Ruth crosses her right leg over her left and lifts her chin. “Didn’t Alberto even tell you how we met?” She laughs. “I started tutoring English after school hours. Your son was my first tutee.” Celia sees his face flush, but he refrains from comment. “Doesn’t he speak English beautifully now?” she declares. “The proof is in the pudding, as we like to say.” Ruth closes her mouth, her lips puffing over the braces.
“Café,” Alberto announces as Soccorro enters with the espressos. “Aqui,”he tells Soccoro, who steadies the tray on the coffee table before releasing it. She straightens, then looks down, frowning hard, as though, finally, she has found where to place the blame. Soccorro is under no obligation to serve each person individually, but this is, nonetheless, what she does, offering the tiny cups on their saucers one by one. Celia accepts hers with both hands.
Proof is in the pudding was the expression that Celia remembered the day she’d heard about the fall of Miss Goodman’s house. Domenico was certainly too good an architect to have been so careless. Had that fatal crack been the vein of proof through the large slop of his pudding? Was that flaw the proof of his inability to wholly betray her? A house divided, she thinks, laughing out loud now, struck by the appropriateness of that bedrock of American statements.
“Mamae,” Alberto says sharply, moving forward in his chair. He drinks his espresso in one gulp, then—without looking at her again—leans forward to replace the cup in its saucer. He stands. “I must go call the priest. I have a few names but didn’t have time to arrange anything before we left.” Celia looks at her son and nods, but she is not positive that he has actually spoken. “Please excuse me,” he says to his wife.
“Oh, of course,” Celia responds loudly. As Alberto walks toward the hallway, she feels strangely relieved. Soccorro is rubbing the base of the window with a wet cloth, and Celia watches her for a while without speaking; then, she whispers to Ruth, “What about the subjunctive? Your subjunctive in English seems so scant, so unimportant.”
There is a mightiness in Ruth’s face that Celia is sure was not there earlier; it is as though some reserve of strength has risen to the surface. “I know,” she says, flipping a sheath of hair from her shoulder. “The subjunctive is so often misused: ‘I wish I was’ instead of ‘I wish I were’.”
“Such an unobtrusive and ignored subjunctive,” Celia agrees heartily, looking at Ruth full on now. “I mean—I request that my son come home,” Celia says loudly. “You would not immediately identify that as the subjunctive, whereas in a Romance language the ending gives it away.” Her daughter-in-law pinches a silver earring between her thumb and index finger. She frowns.
“I ask that you tell me,” Celia says.
Ruth passes her tongue over her top set of braces. “Celia, please listen,” she half-whispers, “he can’t seem to do it, so I am the one who must tell you that Alberto can never come back here to live. Your husband made some deal with the lawyers so that Alberto is free as long as he never works in Brazil again. He won’t be prosecuted as long as he never practices any profession here—architecture, law, anything.” Ruth takes a breath and begins more gently, “I am sure you already suspected it, but Alberto was the one who tampered with the blueprints for that house. He designed it to collapse.” Celia takes in a breath. Then she takes in another. Ruth looks at her. “For you,” she adds quietly. Then Ruth stops speaking until she shrugs and says plainly, “That is how he loves.”
“Yes,” Celia says loudly. She repeats it. “Yes.” Then she narrows her eyes. “That is it, Ruth. That is precisely how he loves,” she promises her daughter-in-law. But she does not turn to look at her. Celia is staring straight ahead. She can see, now, the hidden order within the weakness of the pitiable Anglo subjunctive, an order from which there is a chance—even a good one—of a structure’s emerging that can forever hold its charge.
Martha Witt is the author of the novel Broken As Things Are. Her translations and short fiction are included in several national journals and anthologies. She is currently associate professor of creative writing at William Paterson University.
“The Visit” was originally published in Encyclopedia Britannica (TLR Spring 2012).