This week, my host sister celebrated her 16th birthday. As a surprise, Dan and I ordered a bolo from the German bakery. With our friend Adrienne, we picked it up and smuggled it through the heartland of Bairro B, guarding it carefully from the hands of the covetous zombies. Despite our attempts to move quickly, a few observant individuals noticed and pointed to the giant cake in our possession.
“Um aniversario! Para bem!” A birthday! Congratulations!
“Nao e meu aniversario! De minha irma!” Not my birthday! My sister’s!
“Estou a pedir seu bolo?” I am asking for your cake?
No amount of zombie guilt could pry this cake away from us. We were not going to give away this birthday cake. The three of us made our way into the compound that Dan and I share with Mae and Ajuvencia. We stood outside the front door of the main house.
“Ajuveeeeeenica!” we called. She appeared at the door, washcloth in hand.
“Mana Lisa?” Cool older sister Lisa?
Dan and I held up the cake proudly. “Feliz aniversario!” Happy birthday!
Ajuvencia’s face shined with glee. “Para mim?” She asked, pointing to herself in exaggerated disbelief.
“Para ti!” We said.
“Obrigada!” Thank you! She accepted the cake and brought it inside. Promptly, she returned with a pair of shiny, high-heeled purple shoes.
“Pode tirar um photo?” She asked. “Com o bolo?” Can you take my picture? With the cake?
Reluctant to go through the process of portraiture alone, she dragged her sister, Argentina, outside with her. Argentina, daughter of Ajuvencia’s real mom in Maputo, was visiting for the birthday. She is a big, noisy, busybody with a taste for practicing English. We like her. A lot. On the first day we met her, Argentina crossed her arms and said, “Take me to America with you. I want to go.”
“But we won't leave for another two years,” we had protested.
“No matter,” she had said. “Take me with you.”
Both girls changed clothes and scuttled around one another, tying loose hairs in place. Adrienne agreed to act as their photographer. It was a complicated process to set the scene. A table was brought out into the front yard and covered with a tablecloth. The cake was set gently on the table and the surrounding silverware arranged just so. Like in their favorite of my wedding photos, the two girls cut the cake together, joining hands over the knife. Everything in place, we froze, smiling at the camera. Adrienne snapped the photo.
Lisa, Argentina, Ajuvencia, and Dan cutting the birthday cake
Luckily for us, Adrienne spent a year of high school in Brazil. Her Portuguese is very, very good. That night, we enjoyed a conversation with our sister though the power of Adrienne’s translation. Between the cake, the setting sun, the warm weather, and the help of our friend, we were a happy group of young people. We could have been in New York City, in Paris, anywhere. I promised Ajuvencia that I would print the pictures for her the next time I went to Maputo.
Adrienne laughs as she translates from English to Portuguese
It was easy to forget that this birthday was Ajuvencia’s last birthday as a child, and that this cake was the only present she would receive.
That night, after we walked Adrienne home, we returned to find the two sisters inside the house. They were still in their best dresses and shoes, dancing around the table in the living room. A Justin Bieber song was playing loudly, thumping the windows and drifting out the front door and down the street, into the night. Dan and I settled in to join them. Things that we might not have enjoyed in the United States- teenage musicians, salty cake, purple high heels- are a luxury here. Likewise, things that are strange and sad in the United States- a shortened childhood, a birthday without presents, a pregnant girl turning 16 years old- are common here. These are all little, unforgettable parts of my experience.
Argentina and Ajuvencia, October 21, 2011