The Luminarts Cultural Foundation at the Union League Club of Chicago supports young Chicago artists, writers, and musicians by selecting 20 Luminarts Fellows annually through a rigorous competitive process. Luminarts Fellows receive recognition and financial support, and are cultivated by the Foundation as they continue their artistic practice to the betterment of Chicago’s cultural landscape.
Founded in 1949 as the Union League Civic & Arts Foundation (CAF), Luminarts Cultural Foundation was created by members of the Union League Club of Chicago as a separate, not-for-profit organization. Deeply rooted in the Union League Club of Chicago, Luminarts strengthens the cultural community of Chicago by upholding the club’s century-long tradition of advocating for the arts. Luminarts is dedicated to encouraging our city’s outstanding young artists so that their emerging talent might be heard in performance halls, read within libraries and homes, and exhibited in galleries, museums, and the hallowed walls of the Union League Club.
Luminarts welcomes talented young artists of all social, economic and cultural backgrounds. As a young visual artist, musician, vocalist, or writer from the Chicago area, we invite and encourage you to compete for grants, creative opportunities, and to become Luminarts Fellows.
The Luminarts Fellowship includes competitions in Visual Arts, Creative Writing, Classical Music, and Jazz. In order to be eligible to apply for the Fellowship Program applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 30, live or reside within 150 miles of the Chicago Loop, and be currently enrolled in, or graduated from a degree program, conservatory, or other professional artist development program. For high school students not eligible for the Fellowship Program Luminarts offers high school competitions in creative writing, classical music, and jazz. Luminarts also offers extensive opportunities for Luminarts Fellows, including project grants/project support, special residency opportunities, lectures, workshops, mentorship, and facilitated conversations that provide valuable insights into building a successful career in the arts and strengthening our community of participating artists.
Artists, writers, and musicians who have been named Luminarts Fellows are eligible to apply for special funding through Fellow Project Grants; available only to Luminarts Fellows to support career development opportunities, including residencies, master classes, exhibition and performance expenses, publishing projects, professional travel, and more.
While these grants can be used for a broad array of career development opportunities, applicants must demonstrate how the funding will support this development, and how the funded experience will in turn benefit the Chicago community. Luminarts Fellows, including first- and second-place award recipients from previous years, are eligible to apply for a grant. Applicant requests for funding may not exceed $2,500 and the total request must be less than 50 percent of the total expenditure.
The Ed Paschke Art Center Artists in Residence Program is open to Luminarts Fellows, and is a collaboration with the Ed Paschke Art Center and the Luminarts Cultural Foundation at the Union League Club of Chicago. EPAC Residencies are open to Luminarts Fellows and are intended to give artists the time, space, and resources to pursue creative work in the inspired and artful surrounding that is the EPAC. It is also hoped that the EPAC Residencies provide artists with the opportunity to pursue exploration, collaboration, and community engagement. Artists in Residence will be provided with a studio space, will have an exhibit/event hosted in their honor, will be promoted through the EPAC public relations team, and Luminarts Fellows will receive a $1,000 stipend from the Luminarts Cultural Foundation. 2016 Residency dates available are March 2016, and April 2016. Deadline to apply is Friday, January 15, 2016.
The Union League Club of Chicago (ULC) Library Writer in Residence Program is open to Luminarts Fellows, and is intended to give writers the time, space, and resources to pursue creative work in the inspired surrounding that is the ULC. Writers in Residence will be provided with full access to the ULC Library, space to work, will have a reading/event hosted in their honor, and Luminarts Fellows will receive a $1,000 stipend from the Luminarts Cultural Foundation. 2016 Residency dates available are February – April 2016, and May – July 2016. Applications are currently closed.
Luminarts supports exemplary high school students through its high school competitions in creative writing, classical music, and jazz. Each competition is open to high school students living within 150 miles of the Chicago Loop. In addition to the monetary awards distributed, the winning high school students are often afforded the opportunity to share their work through the Foundation.
Men’s Voice (24-30)
Women’s Voice (24-30)
Men’s Voice (18-23)
Women’s Voice (18-23)
The inside of Virginia’s house was dark. Heavy drapes hung in front of the windows, and the walls of the foyer were stained wood, so that when she pulled the front door closed my eyes couldn’t adjust to the darkness and it was like entering a grand cave. A sound of bare feet sticking to wood grew softer in front of me, and there was a rustling movement at my side as my father removed his coat and hung it on the unseen coat rack in the corner, as if he had been here enough times to know exactly where it was. Slowly the details grew crisper and emerged from the dim light, and I made out Virginia’s frame at the end of the long entryway. The curtains in front of the window were parted in the next room and a wide shaft of light fell on her at an angle, igniting the white linen of her blouse with such a radiance that she seemed almost to emanate light back into the parlor behind her.
“Well come on, then,” she said, and sat on an ottoman. My father’s hand found the small of my back and guided me toward her. Framed photos lined the hallway deeper into the house, each of the same young girl posing unhappily for the camera. In a few of the later pictures there was a young boy standing next to her. She looked to be about ten in the photographs, not much older than myself, although with her hair crimped with beads and her dark skin rendered even darker in the black-and-white photograph, she looked unlike any girl I had ever seen in school or our neighborhood. I didn’t know Virginia’s age, but I knew she was too young to have a daughter, at least a daughter as old or older than I was.
“Why do you have photos of yourself in the hall?” I asked when we had entered the parlor. My father crossed the room to the bar cart in the far corner and began preparing drinks. Ice cubes clinked as he dropped them in three glasses.
“This was my mother’s house,” she said. She swallowed her rs the way folk from the country did, “muhthuh.”
“Where is she now?” I asked.
“Dead,” she said. She leaned back on her elbows on the ottoman and crossed her knee over the other so that her foot danced through the air as we spoke. The air in the room smelled crisp as my father’s fingers tore leaves of mint at the bar cart. He worked in determined silence, as if he had made drinks in this parlor room countless times before. When he finished, he crossed the room and put a pewter cup in Virginia’s waiting hand before handing me a cup of mint and sugar water. I could smell the bourbon in his cup as he moved to the chaise lounge across from Virginia. The pewter cup was cold in my hand, and I saw beads of condensation form on the lip.
“I’m sorry,” I said. She shrugged and sipped her drink.
“She was old. Dying’s what happens when you get old.”
“When did she die?” I asked.
“About two years ago,” my father answered. I wondered if his answer meant he had been seeing Gin that long — at least that long — or if she had told him after the fact. I wondered what else he knew.
“Who’s the boy standing next to you?” I asked, pointing at one of the frames.
“Your boy asks a lot of questions,” Gin said. She smirked as she drank from her glass again, and I suddenly felt very exposed standing before them. I pulled a wooden chair out from a secretary’s desk along the wall and sat. “I wonder where he gets that from,” she said.
“That’s Gin’s brother, Darien,” my father said to me. He then turned to face Virginia and said, “Don’t pay him any mind.”
“Now how am I supposed to do that when he’s sitting right there at my desk?” she asked. She swept her arm across the room and pointed a finger at me over her cup. She spoke like I wasn’t even there. I wished I wasn’t. I thought maybe if I kept quiet and sat in the corner long enough, I might disappear from there completely. “I asked you here to talk, not you and him here so I could host a little garden party,” she said.
“That reminds me, Clancy’s hungry,” my father said.
“Does Clancy have food on him?”
“Virginia,” my father said.
“Then Clancy can wait.” My father stared at her, and she looked him right back before slurping loudly on her mint julep.
“I’m fine,” I said after a moment, when it became clear they both were waiting for me to do something. “I don’t need anything.” Virginia sat back up and turned to me. She regarded me warily, as a stranger in her home, which I was, but against her best efforts her face softened a bit the longer she looked at me.
“Be honest with me, now. You hungry?” she asked. Her voice was softer and she spoke to me as if we were alone. I nodded.
“Did you daddy not tell you where he was taking you?” I shook my head.
“And he didn’t get you nothing to eat.” I shook my head again. She sighed and chuckled a little to herself, a surprising bark of a thing in the dark, quiet parlor.
“Now doesn’t that sound like Hank,” she said. I had never heard my father called Hank before — in fact, I rarely heard him called Henry, and mostly just heard him called Your Father — and the sounds were soft in her mouth, and said with an affection that worked to dissolve whatever tension existed in the air between the three of us.
Virginia stood and smoothed the front of her blouse before offering her hand. I accepted it and she pulled me up from my chair and led me by the hand out the room.
“Where you going?” my father called over his shoulder. He didn’t follow us up.
“Apparently we’re hungry,” Virginia called back. She led me around the corner and into the kitchen. It was a long, narrow galley of a kitchen, and there wasn’t room enough to pass Virginia, so I squeezed in next to her as she opened the refrigerator. It was mostly empty, save for some milk and some collards and a large bowl of what looked like potato salad. She dug her arm around in the fridge, as if to conjure more food out of thin air, and then she pulled it back out and slowly closed the door.
“There’s normally more here,” she said sheepishly. “I’m pretty good about keeping house. But I didn’t know y’all were coming.” She looked toward her feet as she spoke, and I shuffled closer to her awkwardly in the galley.
“It’s okay,” I said, “I didn’t know either.”
She looked up at me and seemed almost like she was remembering me from somewhere. There was barely space enough to breathe in the narrow kitchen, and no more than a foot separated us. She studied my face for a moment, then carefully reached out and touched my cheek with the back of her hand. Her skin was warm against mine, and I could feel my face swell and flush red at her touch.
“You have your daddy’s face,” she told me. She said it as if she were stating a fact, with only a trace of sympathy or affection in her voice. To that point I had only ever been told that I had my mother’s face, but I was not the first person to notice that my mother and my father had almost the same face, the same bone structure, the same pronounced, statuesque features, so that if you saw them walking together you might have thought they were brother and sister instead of lovers, once. Virginia, of course, had never seen my mother — in person, at least, perhaps my father had shown her photos of her — and had only my father’s face to compare against.
“Be honest with me now, Clancy,” she said, finally removing her hand from my cheek. She had kept it there for almost a full minute, and while I didn’t mind because it was nice, I knew eventually she would remove it. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“I mean do you understand who I am to your father?”
She sighed and leaned back against the counter behind her. Her elbows bent behind her and her thin arms looked like flamingo’s legs. She bumped her head lightly on the top row of cabinets but didn’t seem to mind.
“Sometimes I don’t think I even know,” she said. We heard the ruffling of something heavy shifting on its weight in the parlor room and shortly after the light sounds of ice tinkling in a pewter cup again, and we understood my father was making a second pre-noon cocktail.
“How old are you, Gin?” I asked. I knew I shouldn’t have, that it was uncouth to ask a lady, but in truth I didn’t think of Virginia much as a lady. She felt much more like a peer, or an equal. I understood, even having just met her, that she was different from the other women I had known, and that I could be different around her, and that we could all be different together when we were here.
Mike kept that case of beer clutched in his lap as he stared out the windshield. A Bruce Springsteen song fizzled through the radio. There wasn’t much of anything up in the Thumb, just corn fields and ash trees stretching all the way to Lake Huron then Canada way, way after that. Mike had me drive straight into the thick of it. Breaking probation is one of the dumbest things someone can do and the only thing dumber is getting caught. So a guy has to have a pretty good reason for doing it. Driving into Tip County that night, I saw Mike sloshed in the seat where his daughter sat earlier that week. He reminded me of my dad on the night I had driven him to the ER and I realized that, in the time I had lived with him, a level of trust had moved into the apartment with us. Trust is funny like that, comes and goes like a squirrel at a bird feeder. It helps you get a feel for a person, to know when to throw them a chocolate bar and when to keep one for yourself. As I drove through the middle of nowhere, Mike became a man caught at the top of the Eiffel Tower, standing on his tiptoes, and I was below him tossing up boxes of World’s Finest, wondering if he’d fall one way or the other and hoping that he’d not fall at all.
Ten miles past Samson, Mike had me pull over next to the chain-link fence of the Samson Township Cemetery. They don’t lock up many things that far out and there was only a fork-latched gate across the entrance path. Everything was one, blurry, muddy shadow and the smell of dying flowers mixed with the oily earth smell of the rusting fence. Mike stood at the gate, white knuckling the beer and half pint, for what seemed like a lifetime, staring past me at the rows of names and dates and buried lives. At the columns of stones and crosses and angels.
“C’mon, man,” he said. He finished the Burnette’s and wiped the corners of his mouth on his sleeve as he slipped past me. He looked the way he did that first night I had met him, lost but used to it. Then, as if something in him had switched on, he started down the first row of gravestones.
I watched him slink through the rows, going down one until I couldn’t see him through the dark. Then he’d run back. He cut between the stones, slowing down to look around before running to another row. Every fourth marker or so, he stopped and crouched down real close to the engravings. He’d stay like that for a moment, hugging the beer to his chest, with his face almost kissing the slab of granite. It looked like he was letting his mind catch up to the rest of him, as if his body remembered some ingrained instinct or habit and walking through the cemetery gate had triggered it. He just went, gone like a snap, and his reason for running the rows was a good thirty yards behind him. He was two men running at different speeds. When he caught up with himself, he’d shake his head and mutter to himself, then he’d be off again, curling around the dead Smiths and O’Conelys, and the groundskeeper’s shed. This went on for half an hour and part of me thought it was the funniest thing in the world. A bigger part of me thought it was so odd that it was sad, to see a man stumbling blind drunk through a place like that.
When Mike ran close by, I reached out to stop him, to ask him what the hell we were doing in a country graveyard. I missed him but I let my body pull me along at his heels. It gets sometimes that a person stands still long enough that any small movement, like reaching out for something, is like pushing a snowball downhill. Mike ran down another row and I followed, matching him step for step, until I started tripping over bouquets of plastic flowers and veteran wreathes. He was twenty yards away from me and I tried calling out to him again but tripped on one of those grave markers that are supposed to lay flush with ground. Somebody had half-assed it, probably some kid who didn’t know what he was doing, and it stuck up just enough to catch my toe. I hit the soaked ground and got a face full of grass clippings. I heard Mike cut out a short laugh and thought he had seen me fall but when I looked up, he was nose to nose with another gravestone. He probably hadn’t noticed that I had started following him, part of me thought he might have forgotten that I was even out there with him.
“Hey, hey,” he said. “Found you.”
“Found what?” I asked. I tried wiping myself off as I walked up to him.
“Who,” Mike said, “not what. These are people, you know.”
I crouched down next to him and squinted through the dark at the engraving:
Michael B. Rebutte
Husband – Father
“You died in 2009, buddy?” I asked. It was a bad joke but I chuckled anyway.
“My dad,” he said. He didn’t laugh. He nodded and grunted at the headstone then plopped next to it in the wet grass. The case fit between his legs like a baby and he ripped it open. He pulled out the first bottle and untwisted the cap.
“Watch this,” he said to the stone. He snapped the cap and it flew into the night. “Taught myself to do that.”
I leaned on a gravestone just across the row and wondered if Mike was going to drink that entire case and, if so, how long would it take him. But he didn’t drink that first beer. No, it was like he had had enough. Instead, he tipped the beer over his dad’s grave and let the whole thing pour out onto the already drunk earth. Then he reached for a second beer and did the same thing, a twist, a snap, and a long pour. No sip for himself, not even a whiff, he made sure all of it flowed out onto his dad’s head. Then the third. The fourth. The fifth. By the sixth, Mike had become two men. He started talking to him, to the Michael Rebutte that came first, telling him how proud he’d be that he had tried to keep his daughter in French class, like he had kept him in baseball. They slurred through it all and I thought about what the Mikes gave to each other and what they kept for themselves. It went on and on and on and, I swear to you, seeing a man smiling in the face of failure, I didn’t want it to end.
They kept at it, twisting and snapping the caps into nowhere, pouring the beer into a pool, and talking to no one but themselves. I watched the conversation flow in front of me until every last beer was in the earth, until they had run out of things to say, until an early summer rain blew in and washed it all away.
In the fall of 1966, my mother disappeared. I was ten years old and I thought that it was some violent trick a magician might do with a saw and a box. I was at the age when I still believed in magic, and that I was capable of performing it. When I was younger, my grandma used to sit with me on her lap and tell my mother who sat across the table sipping tea, that we Gilden women had to listen to intuition. I was certain for years that ‘Intuition’ was our family’s guardian angel who would tell me other people’s secrets or help me see the future.
At night, I would tell my three younger sisters who slept in the same room with me, that it was time for our special ‘ritual’ (another word Grandma used a lot). I’d make them get up—even Diana who was only five when we started—and stand around me in a triangle. We’d cover ourselves with a cherry blossom pink sheet and my sisters would pretend to hold candles while I whispered gibberish and contorted my body with a flexibility that I’d lose before puberty.
Eight-year-old Katy would watch with wide, green eyes, her awe so apparent that I’d always make extra predictions about what would happen to her in school the next day. They weren’t usually nice, but sometimes they were right. “A boy will try to peek up your skirt on the stairs!” or “You’ll get macaroni and cheese on your shirt during lunch.” And then I’d shudder and convulse on the ground. Leanne, who was only eleven months younger than Katy, always dropped her pretend candle and made faces at Diana.
The night that our mother disappeared, we had long since finished our ritual when I woke up to the sound of a crash. Shattering dishes, the everyday ones with lavender flowers wrapped around the edges, came to mind. I listened, waiting for my sisters to wake up, but their breathing stayed heavy. My father’s muffled voice travelled through the wall, but in wordless sounds. I sat up, combing my thin, blonde hair out of my eyes, and looked around in the darkness. For a few seconds, I could see nothing, but then in the direction of the doorway, a thin ribbon of light traveled up the wall. I blinked a few times, trying to see into the shine and finally I found my mother’s green eyes, widened with fear.
“Are they still asleep?” my father asked from behind her.
She mouthed something to me, but I could barely see her lips opening and closing. Then, the glimmer of her eyes disappeared and gave way to the shadowed contours of her face as she turned to my father. “Yes, they’re asleep,” she whispered. My mother gently closed the door behind her.
I stayed awake in bed for a while, picturing my mother’s terrified eyes, wondering what had broken. I imagined a teacup with a handle missing, a bowl with a chipped rim, a plate in pieces. After some time, I grew tired, and fell asleep. When I woke, my mother was gone.
In the morning, I asked my father where she was as I stirred oatmeal in a pot on the stovetop. I wore an apron that matched my mother’s. She had made them in pieces when I was five, searching for patches of fabric when we could afford it. The trim was a cream lace, the ties were blue, and the pockets were beige.
She was onto Diana’s apron now, but it wasn’t finished yet. The pieces of fabric were bigger and more detailed, the trim more intentional. She sewed less frequently though, stopping to cup a glass full of iced scotch. She said that her fingers ached from the needle and that the glass was soothing, but it only took her a few moments to finish her drink.
It was seven in the morning when I asked my father where she was. He was already dressed, his collar crisp, his black shoes reflecting the pattern of linoleum squares on the floor. He looked over the pot and inhaled.
“Don’t forget the brown sugar,” he said.
It felt strange to put on my apron and bring water to a boil when my mother didn’t appear in the kitchen. My father called me to make breakfast and there was no arguing with him, but I wanted to resist. There was still breakfast, still a routine. Missing her so immediately should not have been the only evidence of her absence, there needed to be a disruption. There needed to be smoke and a bang. We had to fall into chaos. But we didn’t.
I asked my father again where she was. I knew that I might regret asking the question, but I figured I had to be at school soon anyway and he didn’t like interrupting our schedule with discipline.
He told me that she was at the doctor’s office. I nodded and he stood there watching me as I poured brown sugar onto the steaming oats. I pulled out the bowls from the cabinet and counted three. One was missing.
My mother was gone for three days, but I knew better than to ask my father where she was again. After school in the afternoons, Leanne and Katy would stare at the door and Diana would just stare at me. Her gaze made me uneasy, like I was expected to pull a coat aside in the closet and reveal our mother. It made me feel guilty somehow.
I got them to school everyday while our mother was gone. Our father had never driven us to school before and he didn’t start then. Every morning after breakfast, I brushed Diana and Katy’s hair, and I braided Leanne’s hair. We’d leave to school after I made sure their shirts were tucked in and their white shoes were wiped clean of dirt.
The first day we walked past the row houses with yellow awnings and pink flamingos in the yards of the houses our mother had told us to avoid, I was terrified. I thought for sure that someone would find out that we were motherless. It didn’t matter that our mother had only disappeared that morning, I thought that her immediate absence was something noticeable. Our father didn’t seem to be an acceptable substitute. He was the obstacle that we walked around in our living room and he spoke in sayings that sounded like they came out of fortune cookies. He said he was shaping us for adulthood. He talked about work ethic and how he bought his first car by selling eggs from his three hens.
After the yards with flamingos, we passed small houses with patches of grass that went limp in the heat, and we passed old men who sat on their porches skimming newspapers until we neared them. Cars filled the neighborhood streets as we got closer to our school, but the morning still felt quiet.
“Is our mother dead?” Diana asked. Our mother had taken us to school every single morning before this one, so Diana knew that there were questions worth asking. Death was the simplest of them, even if it made the least sense. As the youngest of us, she’d had no brushes with mortality yet; she knew the word from the fairytales I read to her at bedtime.
“She’s not dead,” I said. I was resigned to answering even though I knew that Diana didn’t know what the word meant. I crouched down in front of her and straightened the barrette in her hair.
“But—” Diana began.
I told her not to ask anymore questions, hoping that we could move on immediately, but my sisters began to fidget. Katy picked at her collar and Leanne inched towards the grass.
I was losing them, I could feel it. We could become base so quickly. Curtesy and upbringing lost to a few uncertain moments. I felt the absence of adulthood, my small limbs incapable of rallying what was required. I tugged my sisters closer, believing that nearness would bring understanding, that the bond of skin and blood would commit us to a shared consciousness. I willed the magic of the rituals I performed late at night to flow through me. But in daylight there was no way to chant or contort, and any slight of hand would be seen. I saw nothing but expectation in their faces.
“Mother will want to know all about our day after school so we have to behave. We don’t want to disappoint her, do we?” I asked.
Leanne and Diana swung their heads back and forth.
“Definitely not,” Katy said.
I looked between the three of them, watching their green eyes for some sort of assurance. I found nothing to make me sure.
My mother returned, but there was no party or hurricane. Nothing happened to signify such an incredible event. She was simply there when we came home from school on the third day. Her blonde hair hung limp and her lipstick was splotchy, as if her hands had been shaking when she applied it, but she was home. She opened the door and looked at us as if she was surprised to find us there. I wondered who she was expecting instead.
For weeks afterward I would jerk up in the middle of the night wondering if I’d heard something crack from another room. I thought with absolute certainty that her disappearance could only happen with a bang.
He hears those
lonely, gone mops,
Lennon shook hands, said
so he does.
He hears those
streams pour through
though floorboard don’t
show a drop,
He hears those
melodies slunk off bottlecap
jukebox slickster lips
He hears those
bubble gum licks,
cringe, the sweet stuff
stuck on you,
He hears those
fists push air in
two streams aside, give
way to blue-
He hears those
you stay here,
now, we go gone,
don’t hitcha head
He hears those
boys say, turn, but
arm bent back,
no violin songs,
He hears those
beasts flip wide
still under, but
He hears those
spilt inks run
over her face, spell,
her, too, son,
He hears those
sticks snuffed out,
picks ‘em anyway
lions, and puffs.
He hears those
mouths move, own words
creeping out through
out with it.
He hears those
sun morphs from sea bottom,
kicks them habits like a
she never went.
He hears those
bottle clangs upstairs
one more, not today
almost done a
He hears those
damn tunes so loud
you can put a
quarter in him
I see that
skin turn back
from green, flip
on, flush like
He hears me
say, hot damn, that
George can groove,
he says, yeah, but,
I hear John.
There was a stoop down the street from my apartment where women and girls sat and braided each other’s hair. It looked painful, ripping a comb through dark hair, but even the youngest of girls stayed silent during these styling sessions. Their expressions serene, their eyes looking past the dusty street that sat before them. Sometimes the women gossiped, sometimes they too were silent. Sometimes they called out to the boys that kicked a half-inflated soccer ball down the street, saying those things mothers say. Come back here. Don’t play so far away. Don’t play in the dirt after I just gave you a bath.
The girls changed their hair about once a week. A lattice of braids. A tightly knit ponytail. Dozens of small braids, falling like a spider’s legs. Big hair, full and fluffed, swooping like in black-and-white pictures of the old movie stars.
The girls who lived out in the country wore bandanas outside of school. They worked the fields, they fetched water, they woke up early and swept the house, they put breakfast on the table and a kettle of bathwater on the stove, they washed their families’ clothes, the towels, the bed sheets, everything, by hand. I saw them on the weekends, if I was traveling to the other side of the island, from the window of a crowded van. We would round a bend in Fajã and all of a sudden they would appear—buckets balanced on their heads, hands at their sides, precision and grace in their gaits. I would lean out the window and shout their names as the van zipped past—Janinne, Vanda, Vanézia—and I would see the warm flash of a smile and the fragmented movement of a hand shooting up into the air, some part of the word Mister or Teacher reaching my ears. I loved that fleeting moment of recognition, the moment in between when I called their names and when they found me with their eyes, when they were smiling because they had heard the sound of my voice and knew that it was me.
Often, after class, when the students had been dismissed and were free to play wildly in the courtyard—to buy flavored ice and lollipops and chewing gum, to heave bouncy balls off the concrete, to play soccer and dance to the American pop music that blared from the school’s loudspeakers—often, a few students lingered in my classroom and peppered me with questions. Abo gosta de São Nicolau, teacher? Merka é sab? Qual é mas sab: Merka o Cap Verd? I responded, Yes, I love it here. Yes, America is sab. It’s not that one is mas sab than the other, it’s just—they’re different. The girls, especially my younger students, the seventh graders, they asked if they could erase the board for me, they asked if they could carry the livro de ponto for me, they asked if they could carry my bag for me. They had been taught from a young age to serve, and to them service was a way of showing respect, it was a way of showing love. Toward the end of my two years in Cape Verde, when my hair was long, and I no longer missed those arbitrary things from my previous life in the U.S.—beer on tap, cheeseburgers, the ability to drive a car—the girls, having never before seen hair like mine, often asked if they could touch it. I always laughed and shook my head, I picked up my bag and told them that it was time to go, that everyone needed to be out of the classroom, and I shut the door behind me and walked down the stairs, through the courtyard, through the students dancing and shaking, through the students running and chasing and sliding, their flip-flops forever unable to find any traction on the dusty concrete, through the bouncy balls arching toward the sky, through the blaring music, Rihanna and Akon and Ke$ha, all of the songs that were popular in Cape Verde in 2010, through all of those afternoons, one piled on top of the other, so many that it seemed they would never end, that life would go on forever like that—dancing and skating, energized and electrified, the air charged, the day warm, the sky clear.
There were two bars that my roommate Nelson and I frequented in our neighborhood, and they were both named after the women who owned and ran them, Jacinta and Da Lapa. Jacinta’s doubled as the neighborhood’s grocery store, and it was not uncommon to stand at the cramped counter talking, drink in hand, as one of our students wandered into the store to buy a bag of rice. It took some getting used to, the idea that our students, especially those who lived in our neighborhood, had access into the private aspects of our lives—where we lived, where we hung out, where we drank. The Peace Corps had long been sending volunteers to teach in Ribeira Brava, and the volunteers that were ending their service as we began ours, those who had lived in the very apartment we now lived in, told us that there was no way around it—if you chose to drink in public, students would see you do it. But alcohol was a part of daily life in Cape Verde, and students never looked twice when they saw us with a drink in our hands.
Da Lapa was the mother of my student Jennifer, and her bar doubled as a restaurant. The bar sat in the front room of Da Lapa’s home. We learned from others that Da Lapa had a soft spot for Peace Corps Volunteers. She was a tough woman and she had to be—she ran a bar in a country where only men tended to drink in public, a country where alcoholism ran rampant. But underneath her stoic expressions there was someone who cared for us Americans. She smirked at our horrible Creole, she answered our questions about aspects of the culture we didn’t understand, she made us dinner long after she had said the kitchen was closed for the night. And we went out of our way to please her—we told her jokes and tried to make her laugh (it was always considered a success if she so much as cracked a smile), we offered to buy her drinks from her own bar, we always told her that the food was delicious. When we ate dinner there, we drank at the bar with men from the neighborhood, and we drank what they drank—grogue and póntche—and because the kitchen had been closed, the food often took over an hour to be prepared. By the time Da Lapa told us that the food was ready and led us back through the hanging beads and to her personal dining room, Nelson and I were often half-drunk. Dinner sat on the table in the corner—either beef or fish or goat and rice and French fries—and Jennifer sat in the center of the room, next to the table, totally wrapped up in the Brazilian novelas that played on TV at night. I had Jennifer in class during both the years that I lived in Cape Verde, first in eighth grade and again in ninth grade. We watched the TV with her as we ate and asked her questions in English, in an effort to have her practice what she was learning in school. She was one of the rare students who liked to practice English outside of the classroom. She didn’t worry about making mistakes or sounding foolish, she used the language unabashedly, to the best of her ability.
Sometimes, I’d walk into Da Lapa’s with Nelson or one of the other five volunteers who lived on the island, and Da Lapa would be out running some errand, and Jennifer would be tending bar. It was during these moments that I could see that Jennifer was learning from her mother. She kept a straight face, she poured with a steady hand, she kept silent tallies of who was drinking what and how many they’d had. But I also saw that she was doing things that her mother didn’t, things that I imagined Da Lapa had told her were necessary to do when behind bar. She pretended not to listen to our conversations. She spoke only when spoken to. The other volunteers—those who didn’t live in Ribeira Brava like Nelson and me, those who lived up in the mountains or on the coast—they tried to make Jennifer laugh like we so often did with Da Lapa. But Jennifer rarely broke character. It was an exception to get her to laugh when she was behind bar, let alone make her smile. And it was Brendan who one day asked her, Why the straight face? And she responded, Girls can laugh only Saturday, between noon and afternoon. If not, they’ll be considered liviana. We all laughed, but Jennifer didn’t. She turned her attention back to the TV in the bar. Wait, really? Brendan asked. Jennifer nodded a slow yes, and she kept her eyes trained on the TV in the corner. We asked her to explain to the word liviana. What did it mean? From what she explained it seemed to mean silly. Was she saying that if a girl laughed too much, she wouldn’t be taken seriously by men? That she’d be seen as easy?
But it wasn’t just Jennifer who expressed this idea. Once, when I was visiting with a family who lived a ten-minute car ride outside of Ribeira Brava, the mother of the house explained to me that her daughter laughed too much. I responded by saying that laughter was a good thing. It was something to be cherished. I was reminded of my younger sister Alana. She exuded joy. When we were younger, she became famous at our family dinners for her fits of laughter, laughing and snorting and squeaking, sometimes until she fell out of her chair. No, I said, laughter is a good thing. But the mother reiterated the same points Jennifer had made. Too much laughter meant a girl wouldn’t be taken seriously by men. I asked her to explain more, I said I didn’t understand. But she simply repeated herself. Too much laughter was not becoming on a girl. Her daughter needed to laugh less, otherwise there were going to be problems ahead. What was the problem with laughter? If a girl was not taken seriously, did it mean that no one would want to marry her? That couldn’t be the problem. From what I saw, Cape Verdeans rarely married. Sometimes women moved in with men, but it was an oddity for it to be under the covenant of marriage. There was a saying for a woman moving in with a man in the culture. Tra de casa. To take from home. The saying stemmed from years ago, when a man could show up at the house of a woman he wanted and throw her over his shoulder and take her kicking and screaming to live with him. Tra de casa. Could the problem be that if a girl laughed too much that no man would want that girl to move in with him? That she would never be taken from home? Possibly. Or was it that she’d be seen as a slut? Just as a girl to have sex with and then toss aside?
I was a foreigner in Cape Verde, and this meant that I only saw the surface of things, my eyes skidded along the shimmering surface of the ocean and I was dazzled by the colors, turquoise and blue, and by the beauty, waves crashing into rocks, water reaching up toward the heavens, but I wondered constantly about what lied beneath. Surely, there were things I couldn’t and didn’t see. Nelson and I went for hikes on the weekends, and often, alone in the middle of a deserted landscape, rocks and weeds and dust and sun, we came across abandoned items. A blown out shoe. A rusty can. A pair of torn girl’s underwear. The head of a doll, one eye missing. Wires and electronics, the inner workings of a computer. I wondered how these things came to rest and decompose there. Whose sandal gave way on this mountain? Who mutilated a doll in this cornfield? Who was drinking beer in this dried up creek bed?
I heard whisperings and rumors, things volunteers suspected to be true: Teachers were sleeping with students. But I had no reason to believe these things, I had seen no proof. I played soccer three days a week with the other teachers from school, we sometimes got a drink at the bar afterwards, and from what I observed, most of them took their work seriously. They were good people. But one day a teacher and I were walking up to our respective apartments, talking about the day’s game, and I was in the midst of saying something, retelling some story of a goal I had or hadn’t scored, how I knew where it was destined for in the moment I kicked it, that I could feel it on my foot, when one of my students passed us on the street, and he stopped listening to what I was saying, he hissed at her and reached for her hand, and she looked up and smiled, their fingers touched, their eyes made contact, and I stopped talking, and he didn’t notice. Something twisted in my stomach, everything flashed in and out of focus. I knew. Of course teachers were fucking students. Things happened behind closed doors and in cornfields and behind curtains pulled shut. I thought back to all of the torn underwear that I had seen on our hikes—how had I not made sense of it earlier? They weren’t discarded, they were left in haste. Two people had been working in the fields, they had been doing the chores my students did outside of school, she had been fetching water and he had been on his way to feed livestock, and an opportunity presented itself that at least one of them, if not both, desired to take advantage of.
Teaching in Cape Verde was immensely different than teaching in the United States. I saw students everywhere—at dances in town, at soccer matches, even at the beach. And in this way I knew them much better than a teacher could ever know his students in the U.S. I was invited into some of their homes for meals, to meet their families, to see where and how they lived. And I was charmed by them. It was impossible not to be. They showed me respect outside of school, they made sure to come up to me at social events and greet me, they went out of their way to make sure I felt welcome in their country. They smiled often, they were quick to laugh—simply put: They were happy. And I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t more charmed by the girls than the boys. The boys were charming in their own ways—some in their playfulness, some in their dedication to English, some in their quiet reserve—but I knew the workings of the young male mind, I knew from my own adolescent years the ways it fantasized and lusted, and because of this the boys never appeared as innocent to me as the girls. I saw the way they ogled the older girls who walked by our classrooms, I found the notes they passed in class. I did not, however, know the workings of the young adolescent female mind, and in this way the girls, especially the seventh graders, appeared to me as some of the most innocent creatures on earth. Obviously, this line of thought was flawed and heavily biased, but a few female volunteers said that they felt the opposite—they knew how cruel adolescent girls could be, and they saw the boys as sweet and innocent. Even if I recognized my thinking as biased, it was hard for me to see it in the moment, and when the girls sat before me in class, when I saw them walking down the street, I wished for the world to be good to them. I worried about them growing up in a country that was not kind to its women, a country that referred to being involved with a girl as conquering her, a country where it was a source of pride for men how many pikenas they had (enamorada was the word for girlfriend, pikena suggested a status less important), a country that referred to deflowering a virgin as ratxa papaya—ripping open a papaya.
But not all of the girls struck me as innocent. In my first year teaching in Cape Verde I taught eighth and ninth grade, and while the eighth graders were transitioning from children to adolescents, a few of my ninth grade girls tried to make it obvious to me that they were women. They lingered in the door to the classroom, striking poses similar to something out of a Britney Spears music video and asked me in hushed voices for permission to enter the classroom. They unbuttoned the tops to their uniforms to show cleavage and applied makeup in class. In those first months, I was often in the middle of teaching something like possessive adjectives and one of the girls would raise her hand and say, Mr. Slezak, I love you, or, Mr. Slezak, I am crazy for you. When they did this, the girls always batted their eyes and smiled brightly, and the class quickly turned into a circus, students hooting and hollering, clamoring for attention. In those moments I always felt like I was babysitting rather than teaching. I tried to ignore it at first. I was convinced that if I never acknowledged the inappropriate, it would disappear, but it continued to happen, each time embarrassing me more than the last. Who were these girls? And where on earth did they learn this behavior? I went to a comparatively tame suburban high school in Illinois, and certainly, the girls there were never raising their hands in class to make declarations of love. Eventually, I set down the rule that these were not the kinds of things to be said inside the classroom and that if anyone told me she was in love with me during class, she would be asked to leave the class for the day. That solved the problem inside the classroom, but these girls quickly learned to make their professions outside of it. Again, I chose to ignore them, but that usually just made them say whatever it was they were saying louder. So I learned to smile and say, I know. That usually confused them into silence. I also learned that by engaging them in conversation, by stopping and saying, Vanessa, how are you today? How’s school? How’s your family? they were taken off-guard and answered the questions honestly.
But, for the most part, the girls were well behaved in school. The boys were often the class clowns, they caused the major disturbances. And the higher the grade level in Cape Verde, the more girls there were in the class. Boys often dropped out before they graduated, for a number of reasons—to farm, to fish, to play soccer. If you were male, a larger world beckoned from outside the classroom—the ocean called, the fields sang, trabadja enchada, there was earth to be tilled, the fishing boats, their colors peeling from them like papier-mâché, ached to be taken out on the water. But if you were a girl, there was school. At home there were chores. And one day there was motherhood. If girls dropped out of school and worked, they did it as empregadas, maids. Sure, if they finished school, if they went to college on another island—on São Vicente or Santiago—or if they went to Brazil or Portugal, they could get degrees, maybe become teachers. But there was no college on São Nicolau, and many families could not afford to send their children away. Motherhood was seen as something to aspire to. It gave life a greater purpose, a higher meaning.
The first year I taught, one of my students dropped out of school during the first weeks of class. No notice, nothing. One day she simply was not in her seat as I took attendance. I asked the class if she was sick, and they responded, No, teacher. Gravida. I didn’t know the word yet. They saw the confusion on my face, they cupped their hands to their bellies, they cradled imaginary babies in their arms. Oh, I said, pregnant. I wasn’t naïve enough to think that this kind of thing didn’t happen in the U.S., that students didn’t get pregnant in eighth grade, but looking out at their faces I couldn’t help but be somewhat shocked. They looked like children.
There was a street corner, across from the school, next to where the vans lined up to take the students back to their villages—Fajã, Cachaço, Juncalinho, Lompelado—and men posted up there and hung out, waiting for the last bell to ring and school to let out for the day. When the bell did finally ring, the students flooded the cobblestone streets, a pulsating mass of uniforms, light green and white pin stripes, moss green pants. The boys ran ahead and played soccer on the outdoor handball court, they lingered and sat on the railings on the sides of the street, some of them headed immediately home. The girls traveled in packs, they bought candy from the vendors—dróps and schwinga and shupetas—the kinds of hard candy that didn’t melt in the tropics. The men had been drinking, there were multiple bars in close vicinity to the school, and they had come out to the street to look at all of the movimento, to flirt with girls, to hiss and catcall. In passing, on my walks up the hill to my apartment, I heard these men say things like: Why don’t you visit me sometime in my house? Although, these things made me mash my teeth together, I knew that there were larger cultural forces at play. I knew from talking with Amanda, my girlfriend and a volunteer at a secondary school of the southern island of Fogo, that this type of behavior was not exclusive to São Nicolau. In fact, things were worse at her school. Police officers sometimes showed up, not to regulate, but to visit their girlfriends—students as young as eighth and ninth grade. They kissed and made out on school property, while these men were on the job.
One of these afternoons I walked up the hill and ran into two male teachers that lived on my block. One of them, Silvinho, was with his pikena. The other, Antonio, asked me if the Peace Corps was a religious group. I told him that it was not. He looked confused and then asked me why I didn’t go after girls in Cape Verde. I told him that I was dating Amanda, and that she lived on Fogo. But the confusion did not wash from his face. I was used to this. Cape Verdeans, in general, did not believe that it was humanly possible to remain faithful in long-distance relationships. Whenever I explained that I had a girlfriend on Fogo, men and women alike would respond: And what about here? Brett, you’re a man. You have needs. So I told Antonio that Americans, in general, didn’t have more than one girlfriend. And if I were to go after women on São Nicolau, Amanda would break up with me.
Silvinho put his arm around his pikena and said, She’s one of three.
It was in these moments and immediately after that I worried about my female students. I saw their faces when I stood in front of class, and I hated to imagine that one of them might stand next to her boyfriend, after having washed his clothes and prepared his meals, as he put his arm around her and proudly proclaimed, She’s one of three. And just as much, I hated myself in these situations. I hated the way I stood there. I hated that I couldn’t even think to say, Come on. You don’t have to say that. When it came to confrontation, when it came to standing up for what I believed in, I was never the man I wanted to be. I wanted to be someone to admire. But I always tended to be something of a coward, I watched the moments trickle by, I excused myself from the street, I said goodnight and went upstairs, to my apartment, where the door locked behind me, and I tried not to think about the things I didn’t say.
It was during one of Amanda’s visits to São Nicolau that we walked into Da Lapa’s to get a drink, and the bar was empty, and Jennifer was behind the counter. Amanda and I had been to the market in town, and we had fresh vegetables with us—green peppers, onions, tomatoes—and we had plans to make dinner together. We stood at the bar and each ordered Super Bock from Jennifer. And we got so immersed in conversation with her that we forgot about dinner and stood there, ordering beer after beer. The radio that sat on top of the refrigerator was on, and it was playing Brazilian hits, and Jennifer was talking about the music, about the meaning of the lyrics. She asked Amanda about Fogo. What was the island like? How was it different? Amanda asked Jennifer about her life on São Nicolau, and Jennifer joked about school and English class. The conversation continued on and on, about anything and everything—the size of the dogs on São Nicolau compared to the dogs on Fogo, the novelas that played on the TV, the places we hailed from in America—Chicago and Texas. It was one of those magical moments. I was dizzy from the music and the beer and from having Amanda at my side, and I could see that Jennifer was delighted to have Amanda present in the bar. The Peace Corps had long since sent female volunteers to Ribeira Brava, and it was possible that Jennifer had never before seen a woman in a bar drinking beer. But I could tell that Jennifer was more moved by having someone of the same sex, an American role model, taking interest in her life. When Amanda and I left to walk back to my apartment, when we started up the big hill, the sun was dipping behind the mountains to the west, and the sky was purple and dimming, our shadows elongated and fading.
Inside of the classroom Jennifer was fierce. I started each class period with oral questions, and she wanted to be called on for every answer. She waved her hand in the air, her lips pursed, her face taut with determination. She often got angry with me for not calling on her and sulked with her face buried in her arms; she felt that I did not call on her enough. Although Jennifer spoke English very well, she was not a very good test taker. And because the Cape Verdean education system was based around taking tests—each class had two tests per trimester that made up 80% of the trimester’s grade—she struggled to do well in school. She never made the Quadro de Excelência, a list reserved for the students with the top GPAs in the school. I had a handful of students who made the Quadro de Excelência every grading period. And one of my students who was always at the top of this list, one of the students who had some of the highest marks in the school, was Francelina.
Like Jennifer, I taught Francelina for two years, although the two of them were never in the same class. Francelina was in my most feared class—a collection of students who had failed previous years, some of them were as old as seventeen and still in eighth grade. They threw spitballs, they hit each other and spouted verbal abuse, they interrupted at every opportunity. I didn’t like to turn my back on them, I was often scared to write on the board. Francelina sat in the front row my first year, and she was one of a handful of students in the larger body of thirty who took the class seriously. She was shy and wasn’t as eager to participate in orally practicing the language as the other students. During in-class writings and exercises, she would call me over, asking me questions about the finer details of the lessons we had been learning in class. I knew from her writing that she lived in Aguas das Pratas, a small village in the mountains about an hour hike from the school in Ribeira Brava. I knew that her family was religious. They went to church on Sundays. I also knew from her written feedback that she loved the class, but that she wished the other students would behave. She wanted me to kick the troublemakers out of the classroom more often.
In ninth grade, she sat in the back right corner of the classroom. She participated more, she asked me more and more questions about the language. At some point, maybe when we were working on the future tense, she let me know that she wanted to be an English teacher when she was older. I was moved by this and told her that it was possible, that she was a great student of English. She, as with all of the other students I taught for two straight years, about eighty students in total, changed before my eyes. She grew from a small, meek eighth grader into a quiet, graceful young woman. She, like Jennifer when Jennifer was behind bar, tended to leave her face void of any emotion. But I also remember her laughing a lot more in ninth grade, her wide smile, her eyes the color of coffee.
After I left Cape Verde, when my two years in the Peace Corps were up and I returned to America, Francelina was one of my students who crossed my mind often. I wanted the best for all of my students, especially for the girls, especially for Jennifer, especially for Francelina. I wanted them to find love, to find partners who treated them right, to go to college and see the world, I wanted them to have meaningful careers, to be blessed with love and their lives gifted with joy. For me, Francelina represented the girls of Cape Verde—intelligent, hard working, poised, full of promise, graceful and waiting. The girls of Cape Verde, all of them, waiting—but for what? Waiting to set the table, waiting for the water to boil, waiting behind the bar, waiting for the men to get drunk and spill their drinks so they can kneel down and wipe the floor, waiting with the same blank expression on their faces, waiting for love, waiting for someone to come and whisk them away, waiting for an opportunity, waiting to have a baby, waiting for the spark to ignite the fire of their revolution, waiting and waiting, waiting for life to pass, waiting for death, waiting for the waiting to end.
One weekend during my second year in Ribeira Brava, we were having a party on the roof of our apartment for Nelson’s birthday and most of the neighborhood was there—friends, coworkers, off-duty cops, even the neighbors we didn’t really like. I had been drinking beer and póntche, and I was drunk. I had comedown from the roof to grab something from the apartment when Steve, a volunteer who was new to the island, found me. There’s a girl laying at the bottom of the stairs. Something happened. There’s a guy milling around.
I left the apartment and found Bia on her back at the base of the stairs, mumbling like she was sleep talking. One of my neighborhood friends, a guy with light brown dreads who everyone called Penalty, suggested we move her outside. Bia was a recent graduate from the high school and the pikena of Zezito, a strong, muscle-clad neighbor who lived in the apartment below us and worked as a guard at the island’s jail. I had seen her often outside on the street washing his clothes by hand, joking with the other women who lived nearby. Outside, Zezito was pacing around with worry, his hands on his head. People were trying to calm him down. They told him to leave, to go into his apartment, to call it a night. Bia started kicking in her sleep, I thought she was having a seizure. Penalty said, Her face. What happened to her face? I looked at her face, saw that it was bruised around the mouth, her eyes closed, kicking and mumbling like she was trying to fight herself awake, her hair done for the party, down and straightened, not the normal braids or in a ponytail, she wore it as my students wore it for special occasions. Her face. What happened to her face? She wasn’t drunk. She hadn’t fallen down the stairs. She was unconscious and dreaming. I heard snatches of conversation—the two of them had been arguing, she had found Zezito dancing with or kissing another woman, she had thrown something at him, called him names, he snapped, he punched her in the jaw, and she was out. People started leaving the party, filing out of the doorway, our friends, neighbors, the police officers, everyone looking the other way, everyone going home.
Nelson, I’m sorry, Zezito said later. I didn’t mean to ruin your party.
I’m not the one you should be apologizing to, Nelson told him.
Nelson and I talked about it that night and the next morning. We called our Peace Corps superior, told him what had happened, that we wanted to find the girl, we knew where she worked in town, we would ask her how she was doing, say that we would support her if she wanted to go to the police, that we’d be more than willing to file police reports. We were told not to get involved, that we had no idea how this thing was going to play out, that we needed to keep our distance from the situation. We should not find her at work. We should not go to the police. We should just stay away.
We were upset by what our superior had told us. Nelson and I talked about what we would do if this kind of thing had happened in the U.S. Our neighbor Elton, our best Cape Verdean friend, was over. If this had been our apartment in America, I would have called the police, I said. He would have been arrested.
Yeah, Elton said. In America.
I was conflicted but compliant. There had been officers at the party, what good would going to the police do? I wasn’t naïve enough to think that there wasn’t domestic abuse in America, that this kind of thing didn’t happen there, and eventually, upon returning home, I would witness a drunk couple running their car off the road, the woman getting out to storm away, the man following her and grabbing her by the arm, punching her in the face, telling her to get back into the car. Violence, when it erupts, is sudden, unexpected, without warnings or harbingers. I’ve learned that I don’t speak up in the face of it, I watch from a distance, I think of things I should do, and I slink away.
Zezito left the island for a couple of weeks. When he came back he said he had left to clear his head, that he had to get away because of the thing. I saw his girlfriend before I ever saw him. One day, about a week after the party, I left the house and saw that she was talking on the street with neighbors. Buckets of soapy water at her feet. Even though Zezito was out of town, she had returned to wash his clothes.
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