My cousin points to my septum ring:
It’s too big, she says in English. Ugly.
She pulls at the hoops in her ears—cheap gold things—
this, she says. I like this. Boys, she says. Boys like this.
She turns to my aunt and asks for coffee
in Portuguese. I look down at the scratches
in my arms, raked over with fingernails until I bled.
I’m ready to offer, hives, but no one asks.
Instead, it’s my nose ring, tattoos, uncombed hair.
My grandma is stirring the feijoada on the stove
under a single crocheted curtain.
The dog whimpers out on her courtyard.
I look my cousin in the eye. She might be beautiful.
Certainly more beautiful than I am—scarred hollow body.
Her husband beats my uncle.
Her brother ignores his anorexic daughter my aunt is raising.
My more beautiful cousin fingers her wedding ring—
cheap gold thing. I go out into the courtyard,
sink my naked fingers into my grandmother’s potted plants.
Sometimes I can’t breathe in my grandmother’s house.
Later, across the city I was born in,
as strange to me now as my grandmother’s superstitions,
my godfather leads me by the shoulder.
Here, there are no whimpering dogs.
No narrow cement brick courtyards.
My godmother’s ghost is a perfumed shadow
across the folk art masks,
the woodcut prints on neat stucco walls.
We walk through the garden. I remember it
as a swimming pool. We filled it in, my godfather says
in Portuguese. I ask about the ancient tortoise
I remember feeding overripe bananas.
She’s dead, I gather when he changes the subject.
He names every plant. They’re so big here,
impossible to imagine as the same houseplants
in my small Pittsburgh apartment.
My godfather points at my septum piercing.
Just like an Indian, he says. Beautiful.
He makes a joke I don’t completely understand.
His hand on my face is the phone call my godmother made
before she drove her car off a red dirt road.
It’s the wet philodendron leaves as broad as we are—
shoulder to shoulder, breathing in the easy recognition
that we might be strangers.