“VARIG flight 27 for Miami with a stop in São Paulo now departing from Gate 2.” The breathy intercom voice might as well have been a hideous cackle, the way Cristina Larson’s stomach clutched. She did not want to get on that plane.
“Não!” Márcia drew out the Portuguese word in a long moan. She embraced Cristina, and soon both girls were sobbing. “A year is so long! You’ve got to write to me. All the time. Promise?”
Cristina nodded and groped for a tissue in her pocket.
“Tell me all about your birthday,” Márcia continued. “It’ll be wonderful having your quinze anos in America!”
Cristina wasn’t at all sure that was true. Her Brazilian friend probably imagined that Rum River, Minnesota, was right next door to Disney World Why did their year in the States have to be now? Why couldn’t it be last year or next year—any time but the year of her fifteenth birthday?
“Come on, Cristina. I want to hug Márcia, too, and we have to go.” Cristina’s older sister, Bete, stood by her side.
Márcia gave Cristina another squeeze and kissed her on both cheeks, then kissed Cristina’s right cheek one more time. “For luck,” she whispered. They both knew what kind of luck she had in mind.
Everyone hugged and talked at once. There were so many last minute things to be said and not enough time to take turns. How Cristina wished she could stay! She hated good-byes, hated pulling up roots and going to America. It might be “home” for her parents, but western Brazil was the only home Cristina wanted.
Márcia’s mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue. She gave Cristina an extra kiss for romantic luck as well. Cristina giggled despite her tears. She was sure Tia Dalva had no idea that the “luck” Cristina hoped for was the tall handsome son at her side.
Vicente’s dark eyes met Cristina’s, and his strong arms wrapped around her. Then he took her shoulders firmly and kissed her on both cheeks. Her skin tingled, and for a brief moment Cristina wondered how long she could get away with not washing her face. Tio Zé and Cristina’s father hugged and slapped each other soundly on the back as they said their own farewells.
The voice on the intercom repeated the boarding call. Cristina picked up her carry-on bag. It was heavy with all the treasures she couldn’t force into her suitcase, but couldn’t bear to leave behind. Her feet shuffled reluctantly through the gate after Bete. The black tarmac reflected the heat of the Brazilian sun. She stopped half way to the plane and looked back at the terminal. It seemed like she had done this a hundred times before. It never got any easier. Vicente had his arm around Márcia who rested her dark, curly head on her brother’s shoulder and waved a last farewell.
“I hate good-byes.” Cristina clenched her teeth and started up the steps to the plane.
* * *
The corridor of Rum River High School was noisy and crowded with strangers.
“What are you looking at?” The girl at the next locker glared at Cristina. Cristina snapped her mouth shut to keep from answering back and jerked her eyes away from the girl’s tight neon outfit. Her cheeks felt hot, and she knew they were as bright as the other girl’s top. The girl slammed her locker and swept away.
“If she doesn’t want to be looked at, she shouldn’t dress like that!” Cristina muttered. She rubbed her nose and shook her head at the stale smell of tobacco the girl had left behind. A horrible thought scratched at Cristina’s mind. She glanced down at her outfit and looked anxiously around the corridor.
Most of her fellow students were dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Some were wrinkled; some merely limp. Cristina wondered if Americans had ever heard of the electric iron. Here and there were one or two others in loud, tight outfits.
Evidently it was some American idea of bacana--‘cool’ or whatever the ‘in’ word here was. But Cristina wasn’t impressed. She and Bete had stayed up late last night carefully ironing their jeans so they would look good for their first day. It was nice not to have to wear uniforms for a change.
Christina shook her blond hair back from her face and tilted her chin. She closed her locker, but the door didn’t fit right. So she slammed it. She wished Bete were with her now, but the seniors’ lockers were all at the far end of the school. She wondered how long it would take people to learn to call her sister “Bechee” instead of “Betty.” She sighed and arranged her face in what she hoped was a confident smile and stepped into the flow of students.
"Christina!" At the squeal of her name, Cristina turned and was smothered by Lisa Connor's enthusiastic welcome. "I just knew it was you! I've been dying for you to get here. I’m so sorry I was gone for the weekend. I couldn’t help it. My parents made me go to this stupid old family reunion. It was so bo-oring!"
Cristina blinked twice. Lisa had been her best friend in fourth grade—the last time the Larsons had spent a year in the States on home assignment. Their families had been friends since before the girls were born. Lisa wrote occasionally, and their parents exchanged Christmas cards. Their annual photographs showed how much the girls had grown. Lisa's letters sometimes made Cristina feel like she was a trophy that Lisa liked to pull out when it suited her. "I have a good friend who lives in Brazil," she could boast if someone's Grandmother made a trip to Europe or something.
Lisa’s gush of words came to a pause, and Cristina realized she was supposed to respond. "That’s okay. I was busy unpacking and getting settled," she offered.
"Oh, never mind. You're here. I can't wait to introduce you to everyone. You remember Ann."
Lisa turned to a tall girl at her side with meticulously applied makeup. Her long, softly curling hair, a shade darker than Lisa’s gold, was brushed in a style that looked a little odd to Cristina, but she wore it with a kind of confidence that said it must be “in.”
"Oh, yes, I remember Ann," Cristina replied. How could I forget? The month before they returned to Brazil Lisa went off with Ann and told her all Cristina’s secrets. "You aren't going to be here any more; I have to have other friends," Lisa had explained as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Ann’s lips pulled back to show her upper teeth. Cristina thought it was supposed to be a smile.
"Is that the kind of earrings they’re wearing in Brazil these days?" Ann asked. Cristina had studied the picture that had come from the Connors last Christmas and made sure she wore a pair of large clunky earrings like Lisa had on in the picture. Now she noticed that both Lisa and Ann wore long, dangling earrings that swayed gently when they turned their heads.
"Why, yes," she replied. She hoped her face wasn't giving her away by turning red.
“Oh, how cute!” Lisa crooned. “I used to have some almost like those.”
“Come on, Lisa. We have to get to English.” Ann sounded impatient.
“What do you have now, Cris?”
Cristina consulted the schedule she had been given in the office. “Uh ... I have English, too.”
“That’s great!” Lisa squeezed Cristina’s arm and pulled her toward the English room. Ann joined them. Her face was unreadable behind her makeup.