La Recoleta

Friday, July 15, 2016

I. Where You Belong

My aunts had made me empanadas for the plane trip, wrapped in waxed paper and nestled into my bag along with what my mother had called the family teeth: tiny white stones gathered as she walked on beaches in Brazil and Uruguay with my father. Some of my mother’s books, too, Go Down Moses and To the Lighthouse in English and a worn copy of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories in Spanish. The owl-faced kachina doll from her nightstand, cradled in tissue paper, and a hairpin in the shape of a beetle. I arranged it all in front of me on the tray, a small and sentimental museum, a picture of the last three years. The woman in the seat to my left asked if this was my first time visiting the States, and although I wanted to say yes, I said, no, no, I was born in the Midwest and my father was born there, too. “I’m going to see my grandparents,” I said, all spoken in a low whisper just beneath the hum of the engines. She leaned in to hear. I felt close enough to kiss her, although I had never kissed a woman before and I didn’t want to start.

“Well,” she said, “your accent is wonderful,” and then she smiled and returned to her paperback. Later I would help her with her bag and she would thank me and wish me luck with a strong shake of my hand. Years since then, but I still wonder about her story and why I did not ask about it. She wore jeans and a man’s button-down shirt and her hair was cut short, and I remember thinking that coincidence had placed two unusual people side by side. She grinned and shook my hand, and then we inched our way up the aisle. Possibly she was minutes away from a reunion with someone she loved.

They stood at the gate of the Indianapolis Airport. I saw them before they saw me, and I was struck by how serious they looked, as if they were assessing a bad crop, but they smiled when I separated from the crowd and entered their line of sight. My grandmother commented on my thinness and my grandfather on my hair, which fell around my shoulders and eyes in the style of the Argentinian teenagers, but mostly it was to laugh about it all. And how odd for them to mention my accent, too, and that same word, wonderful, although my grandfather added that I would lose it soon enough and that would help me fit in. He knew a barber who would fix me right up, he said, and he ran his own hand over his scalp to show me the evidence. “I’d really like to hug you,” my grandmother said, and when she did I could hear her sobbing, although all of that had been fixed by the time we separated, her face red but composed. “Your mother was a great woman,” my grandfather said in the car, “and she loved your father very much. But we’re glad to have you back. This is where you belong, you know. You do know that, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said, because it was easier to agree, just as I had agreed with my mother when she had decided we had to leave. “No hay nada que nos llevamos de aquí,” she had told me. There is nothing holding us here. The men from the government had explained that my father was missing, presumed dead. Many men under his command had died at Khe Sahn, they explained. It was a tragedy reaching into many homes. I imagined them as the sole two messengers dispensing this news to each and every family who had lost someone, and I felt sorry for them before I felt sorry for my father—that feeling came days later. I remember that, and I remember how I stood, right beside my mother in the doorway as they spoke, my body folded to her side. My mother said, “A tragedy? Yes, it is that. Of course, it’s that.”

II. You and Me and the Laws of Physics

My mother had once told me that the United States was a land of segregation, that if it wasn’t the blacks being kept away from the whites and the women from the men then it was the living from the dead, and she waved at a passing cemetery as if to show me the evidence. “You’ll see when we get to Argentina,” she said. “You’ll see how there’s more than one way to live a life.”

This was four years before, when we were preparing to leave. The gravestones flashed to my right and then they were gone, replaced by high fields of corn and silos, barns and an occasional sign announcing the return of Jesus Our Lord and Savior. I didn’t mind any of it, and sometimes, when I tilted my imagination in just the right direction, the fields reminded me of the lakes I had seen in Pennsylvania, where my father had taken me camping once, vast motionless spaces that made you think something important was waiting on the other side if only you could find a way there. I was twelve years old, and when I had told people at school that we were moving, they had first assumed it might be to St. Louis or Cincinnati, Indianapolis or maybe, if I was unlucky, Chicago, where someone said his uncle had once been mugged right on the street in broad daylight with a knife the length of a ruler, the length of this stick here, and then he showed me. I let them believe what they wanted to believe, and I let my mother believe what she wanted to believe: that a change in geography could cure everything and that we were in this together, as mother and son, as two friends. “You and me and the laws of physics,” she used to say, as she paused in her work at the sink.

It was only years later that I discovered she had renounced the American citizenship granted to her by her marriage to my father. I think if she could have she would have done the same with mine, but instead I wore it like a deformity. Sometimes it would become invisible in the light of her affection, but then she would notice it as if noticing a drooping eyelid, a misshapen hand, and then I would notice it, too.

III. Safe in the Beehive

In Buenos Aires my body became lean as a pencil. That’s how my mother put it, lápiz largo, and she showed me by holding up an example from her desk. She told me that this was me shedding everything I didn’t need, becoming my true self. A pencil is perfect, she said. It’s one of the few things a person needs. I told her yes, I understood.  

My mother said she could see my father in the way I moved through a room or lowered my head when others spoke. But then there was the other me, the one who ran through the streets. My friends and I thought of ourselves as wolves, but really we were just dogs begging for attention.  We’d find a certain kind of man, older and dapper, thin, with a well-pressed suit and an umbrella at his side, a moustache and a wide-brimmed hat. There were many men like this, of course, but there would be something in the walk, the expression, or something in us, a mood running through us that seemed to originate elsewhere in the noise of the city. We’d scream at him, faggot, faggot, and he’d spin around, and then we’d run, but not away. We’d run toward him and then past him. One of us would reach out and grab a hat or umbrella, and we’d keep running. This was not theft. It felt as though the object was simply caught up by the wind we were making, and then we’d drop it farther down the street. We’d pause and watch him as he bent to pick it up, and only then would we make our exit.

One thing makes another thing possible. I still don’t completely understand the alchemy of our situation, because sometimes in the same day, while sitting beneath the old train bridge and looking out across Montego Bay, a different mood would overtake us. Two bodies would stand and dreamily wander away from the rest, out into the trees. One of us would fumble with the jeans of the other—it was often me doing the fumbling—and then a hand would slide inside the other’s underwear. I remember the grass tall enough to hide small bodies, and I remember jerking my fist hard and listening to the noise the other boy made. I sometimes stopped and slapped  a bug.

During this stop in the procedure I could still hear his tight breath, and sometimes I would wait just a little extra long before resuming. The faces are all one face in my memory, pleading and then serene and then expressionless.  It was important not to speak when it was over, to return to the group as quickly as possible and then talk about girls at school, or football or other boys we hated because they were stupid or fat. We did not drink but we did smoke. We found the discards on the ground and lit them and took short drags and imagined ourselves as worldly. I only found out later that we were worldly in our way, but that was much later, after my mother was dead and I was back in that little farming town.

Each night my mother would say, “Back before midnight,” and each night it would be one, two, three when I came creeping into my grandmother’s apartment, past my mother’s open door. She would speak out to me from the bed, and then I would become someone else and I would slide next to her and ask her what she was reading. I remember some of the books. Hemingway’s early short stories, in English and smelling of damp, Marx and Engels in Spanish, Virginia Woolf and Jean-Paul Sartre. New ones appeared at regular intervals and then became part of the stack next to her bed, where she sometimes rested a mug that had come with us from America. My grandmother snored in the other room, the oxygen tank making its deep groan along with her. I was a child then, listening to my mother telling stories, and even though I was growing older and these stories were not the kind associated with childhood, I experienced them as a child listening to children’s stories. She told me about injustice in the world, but I did not think of it as this world. She told me about the Spanish-American War, but it seemed a fairytale. And she told me about Mrs. Dalloway. But that sad woman seemed to come from my mother’s imagination, not from the books, and so her mind seemed as vast and neatly organized as a great library. She did not ask me about what I had been doing or even if I was happy, and I think this was because she knew I was happy—blindingly so—and she did not want to ruin it by having me put it into words. One day she said, “It’s strange to think we are at war, isn’t it? Everything is so peaceful up here in our little beehive. The bees are humming softly.”

She meant my grandmother’s snoring, a joke that never got old.

She must have seen the expression on my face, because she added, “You’re an American citizen. You’re in no danger. You’re in more danger in America. They’re fighting their own dirty war, although they don’t call it that. They call it policing. That’s a nicer way to put it, isn’t it? You know enough to run away from the police, right?”

“Ciertamente,” I said. I had learned that on my own. It was part of the fun.

“It’s never going to end over there,” she said. “It killed your poor father, and it’s just going to keep going and going and going. It’s a machine that eats people.” A book splayed open on her lap, and this news seemed to come from that place as much as from her. The two were one. I pushed in against her, and even this news—the death of my father and others—comforted me in a way that I still don’t understand. Maybe it was just my mother’s voice, so sure of herself and our future, or my own strange hungers. Each part of me lay satiated. She said, “Oh, this is good,” and her fingers found the line. “The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” I was fourteen and language seemed a thing separate from my life, a sign pointing in the direction of a place where I already lived. Didn’t she smell my experiences on me? 

A second memory stands next to the other, and in this one we are moving through the busy Buenos Aires streets, and she waves her hand at the tall iron bars, the crumbling walls. America is the land of segregation, she says, if it’s not the blacks from the whites and the women from the men, it’s the dead from the living. We are here to see all the great people, the actresses and presidents and writers, that long line stretching behind us. She says we can look right in, sometimes, and examine their bones, and she wiggles her fingers as if they are the playful little dead ones sleeping in their chambers. “It also makes a good shortcut,” she says, and we pass beneath the great arch along with a hundred others. Pellegrini is there and so is Lonardi and Agustin Pedro Justo. My mother reads the names, announces them the way she did that other time at the zoo in Indianapolis. Zully Mareno, she says, some people say I look like her, and she smiles. Although not anymore, thank the lord, and she crouches to watch the bones through the broken glass, the rusted iron. We pause there, as if waiting for something to happen. The crowd is thick and heavy, and they move around us, irritated at this inconvenience. It’s only the tourists and poets who linger here, after all. I remember her words and I remember my hunger and my mother, who was still quite young, lifting her chin and posing like the famous actress, like the looming statue above her. “Qué piensas?” she asked. 

“Yes,” I said in English. “I can see the resemblance.”

“Hablarme en español,” she said, and we moved in step with the crowd again, past the cloaked angels and mothers with bowed heads, figures with clenched hands and arched backs, the stone generals with precise moustaches, the five-part names written on plaques. Some graves were covered with flowers and others barren, and my mother said this was because of the judgment of history.

I am amazed at the beauty of the graves and of the living people, too, with their dark suits, the long-legged women in heels with serious faces. Some people read newspapers as they walk, guided by some kind of inner radar. The marbled figures rise above everyone, the tenement buildings above them, noticed, it seems, only by my mother, who keeps reading the names as if she knew them once long ago. 

I can see it all, but the other memory, the quick flash of the cemetery and then the sea of gold corn, has its own pull. My mother waves her hand, and then it’s gone.

IV. Nobody

“Nobody is to blame,” my grandmother said before she died. I held her foot because I could not touch her hands. The entirety of her body was taken by the crowd of family and former husbands and lovers and friends of forty years. They cradled her gnarled hands and touched her head and I stood at the end of her body, the foot of the bed, holding her toes, dry as corks and pushed together as if to fit into one of the polished black shoes she loved so much. I did not know if she felt my hand, but it seemed impolite not to touch her.  Everybody was doing it. Her ex-husbands, three of them, wept openly. So did her daughters, her other daughters, I want to say, because my mother had been gone for more than a year by then.

Nobody is to blame.  These were her last words, spoken with a voice as dry as her skin. Her first husband, the merchant marine, opened his mouth. He was waiting for more. He was waiting for a story, but he was not that important. They had only been married for two years. Her second husband, the one I thought of as the bearded one, ran his fingers through his long, gray hair. He seemed to shrink into the moment, become smaller as she moved closer to the end. The third, my mother’s father, touched her shoulder and repeated, Dios es amable, Dios es amable. He seemed to be on the verge of singing it, and although I liked him best, I wanted him to shut up. I willed it with my mind.

I was fifteen years old, and my boyfriend stood in the kitchen, shoulders set and arms crossed. I tried to nudge him with my will as well, wrapped an invisible lasso around him and then tried to pull him into the living room, but he didn’t come. I could picture him listening, pacing, waiting for it all to finish. All I wanted was his hands on my shoulders, his face at my back. All of them had their shames—it would not have been so difficult.

Outside the traffic roared. We could hear it even twelve stories up. The entourage had to take the trip up in groups of four, packed into the little metal elevator. The bars would accordion across, the doors creak closed, and the hum would begin, the cable echoing up through the shaft. The ones left behind would joke about the danger. My mother’s sister told me, “Your friend is Brazilian, eh? He’s very handsome.” We squeezed against each other. She turned her head, and I could smell her bad breath. My mother’s face, sort of, but less beautiful, the same features but organized in a way that made her look bland, while my mother had been exotic. She was the faded photograph left behind, reminding us of the original, although I did not feel sorry for her. When we reached the apartment, the door stuck and I had to shoulder it open. The women cheered, half-mocking, half-genuine. The room filled with cigarette smoke and to the right the boxes packed with my mother’s books. Philosophy, architecture, literature, economics. She used to read in bed, and my grandmother would yell at her, “There are things to be done.” But that message came from another bed. This is how they spoke to one another in the apartment. 

I took hold of the dried foot. She was already halfway to that other place. Possibly she felt the touch, my touch, and that’s why she said the words. “Nadie tiene la culpa. Nadie. Nadie.” Nobody. Nobody. Nobody.

V. American Swears

Thirteen, and my Spanish was strong enough that this was all I spoke at school, although beneath the bridge it was the American swears that held the most attraction. They were like expensive gifts I had brought from that other country, and I shared them with my friends, one here, one there. Four of us watching the boats on the bay, the thick tankers with rusting sides, the cracked docks, and barges piled high with debris. All of it seemed on the verge of collapse except for us. Even when the oldest one of us disappeared, we still seemed invulnerable. He was eighteen, with thick glasses and an opening gambit at a beard, and he only appeared occasionally under the bridge, standing a little separate from the rest of us and never participating. We made up stories of him running north across the border. We made up stories of him getting a girl pregnant. Each of us had our favorite tale to tell.

Sometimes we would spot Americans, always men in boxy suits, fat men, or at least they seemed fat to us, and always they seemed to be something other than what they were. Americans in Argentina must always be CIA agents. They wore dark glasses and would smile at us if we drew close, ask us why we were out so late. We posed for them. I posed for them. Then we mocked them with American words, although I did not want to appear American.

My mother had her own secrets. Sometimes I returned to find only my grandmother there, speaking to me from her bedroom, calling out my name and asking me the hour. I called back to her, and this is how we spoke, back and forth in the dark as I found my way to the fridge by the sound of its old motor.  My grandmother said, “Your grandfather was a communist, but he kept his money in a metal box beneath our bed. I tell your mother this, but she doesn’t believe. She only sees hypocrisy where she wants to see it.”

I said, “He was a handsome man.”

Every few days my mother and I walked through those tall gates. On the other side stood her favorite restaurant, a place supposedly once frequented by Borges, where coffee came in thick glasses floating on long stems and our plates were served to us by old women whose hands shook. The ceiling fans spun high above us, and once, on impulse, I raised my voice from a whisper, and heads turned to look at me. The customers were old, too, the food old, the napkins and plates, all of it. I would watch my mother eat. This was a place from before, she liked to say, a place from her childhood. Back then the waiters had worn bowties and there had been a performer who had sat right there singing gaucho songs. She indicated an open space with the pointing of her finger. Her hair had become a tempest, her face calm in the middle of it. “Your father sat where you’re sitting now. I translated for him. He said he couldn’t learn the language, that he was stupid, but there was something stubborn about him. Your grandmother would speak to him anyway, and he’d smile. She sat there.” She indicated the space next to her. “And you were here,” she said, and she rubbed her stomach.

I said, “They have machine guns now in the square. But everybody acts like it’s the same as before.”

“I’m not sorry I brought you here,” she said. “Now eat.”

She was always telling me to eat, eat, because it would be rude not to, as if we were visiting family, some distant cousin we must impress. Then the coins came out, the careful accounting, the endless rumination on the tip. As she did this, I told her, “I’m not worried.”

“You shouldn’t be,” she said. “Your father was from Indiana, for God’s sake. You’re untouchable.”  She reached out and laid her fingers on my jacket pocket, where she had told me to always keep my passport. She found its delicate weight there and seemed satisfied, but her voice betrayed contempt. It was as if she had reached out to touch a saint, a thing that was supposed to cure some small ailment, but she was not convinced of its power. I told her that I could not eat, that the food tasted like paste and cardboard: an experiment to test my own strength and the limits of her anger. I was almost fifteen, it was 1976, and the restaurant would be closed in a year.

“Entonces educar su paladar,” she said. Then educate your palate.

“It’s disgusting,” I said, in English, and she scanned my face as if she did not recognize me.

I remember once a man stopping us in the cemetery and saying, “Daniela, do you remember me?” and a cold look crossing her face. She might as well have been looking at a bum asking for money, but this man was well dressed. He held a leather attaché case. We stood before one of my mother’s favorites, the white sculpture adorning the black tomb, the almost naked Jesus with the two bodies resting against his thighs in supplication, and she raised her right arm and made a fist and then she spat on his pants. “A bureaucrat,” she said later. This is how she looked at me across the restaurant table. I decided to bow my head and eat.

VI. Crossing Out Words

After my grandmother’s death, the letters came from overseas. Others had come before, but they had been used as bookmarks in my mother’s novels and simply tossed on the floor of her bedroom.

Amazing I had never noticed them. Others had come later, and my grandmother continued to put them in the books on the shelves in the living room. I opened them and read my father’s story, except that in this story he was not a father but a son. It was the story of my grandparents losing him and then losing me to a woman and a country they did not know. The new letters talked about bringing me back to the States. My father had been twelve years older than my mother—another surprise, because he did not look older—and there had been scandal. All of that would be put aside if we simply returned. Sometimes words were crossed out, and I remember disliking them for that: the presumptuousness of just scratching a word out and writing a new one and thinking that wasn’t a blemish. I crouched beneath the bridge and told the other boys, “I won’t forget any of you.”

They told me I was being foolish. Half of them lived on the street. I could, too. It was easy. Fun was a word they used. One of them said, “We’ve all lost somebody. I’ve lost two brothers.”

“I know,” I said.

The Brazilian boy—it would be too much to call him my lover—stood watching me, waiting for some show of defiance. I was waiting for him to touch me, but we didn’t do that, not even a clasping of hands, unless we sprawled in the long weeds. He would miss me, but I could tell he was already figuring out who my successor might be. He had an assortment to choose from, although none quite so exotic. He said, “I fought for you. When your mother disappeared, who was there? It was me. I was the one rubbing your feet and telling you it would be okay. And now you’re treating that like nothing.”

He was performing for the others, but the whole gambit could backfire. “I don’t remember that,” I said. It wasn’t really as he said, although there had been a modicum of tenderness, a few kind words. But I also remembered him saying, “What do you think she was thinking when she married your father? The handsome American captain with his uniform and his pistol. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” I remembered that detached look, as if my life were a book he was reading, a thing seen from a distance.

I must have looked morose. This was against the unwritten rules. The face must wear a slight smile or be as impassive as water, reflecting back the gaze of anybody looking for something there. That was one of the first things I learned. The second thing was that we should not talk this way. Better to hurl insults at strangers. So that’s what I did, and this time I did it alone. I found the perfect victim: a man with red and gold lapels, a bulky shape standing at a long black car. A pistol dangled from his belt, wrapped in a leather holster, and the important thing about this entire picture was this: a single button on his shirt was loose and I could see a bit of exposed belly. He had the look of a man preoccupied with troubling thoughts, guilt about how he had treated his children that morning or worry about how to deal with a superior. A few others stood around him in their military green, and I began to run, weaving through the bodies. As I passed him, I yelled the word, faggot, faggot, and not just that. I brushed against his coat. I thought of myself as a ghost blowing through his life. Then I was ten, twenty feet away, backpedaling, and I yelled the word again. He was more confused than angry. The anger would come later—I knew that—as he was sitting at his big desk doing paperwork. I wondered if my mother’s name was on a list somewhere in his files. I held up both hands as if I had just scored an impossible goal. I yelled the word. Did he even understand?

For a moment I thought he might pull that gun and send a bullet to me over the heads of the bystanders, but of course that would not happen, and even if it did, I felt as if I could catch it in the palm of my hand, just reach out and pluck it from the air. Time sat as still as the befuddled expression on his red face. So I ran backward against the crowd and they parted for me, and then I vanished around a corner. I was not even pursued, and then two weeks later—no more than that—I sat in a row of desks in an Indiana school. They wished me welcome to the class, to the country, and I stood because this was what I was supposed to do, what the teacher had instructed. I told them my name and that my favorite subject was math.

VII. The Benjamin Franklin

My grandfather and I stood on the back lot of his long, scrub-brush property, a paper target set against a tree, and he showed me how to hold the Benjamin Franklin, to aim and then wait a count of two before firing. It was light in my hands, lighter than expected, the nickel finish polished and smelling like the change jar my grandfather kept on the kitchen table. I wanted to lift it to my nose and take in its scent the way I might with a piece of bread. He walked slowly to the target and replaced it with a fresh one, and as he stood there by the poplar tree, he looked back at me holding the rifle and smiled. I remembered that he had worked in a shoe mill for thirty-five years and that in the letters he had referred to my father as a troubled boy. He smoothed the target against the tree, stepped to one side, and let me fire. My hair had been cut close to my head and I wore a cap against the sun. The gun kicked in my hand, but I could control it.

On the walk back to the ranch house he told me, “We’re very happy to have you back here where you’re safe. We were worried sick. But that’s over now.”

“Right,” I said, and I thought that maybe this had been my father’s rifle when he was my age. They had conducted the same ritual years before because it was important then and it was still important. I passed the rifle to my grandfather, and he let the barrel tip to the ground as we walked.

“When you’re ready, you can tell us what happened,” he said, “but only when you’re ready.” He folded his arms and looked back at the gnarled land, and I could not imagine when that day might be, just that it was not that day.

But then I said, “I think they threw her out of a helicopter.”

“What?” he asked.

“Over the ocean,” I said. “I think that’s what they did.”

He switched the gun from one arm to the other. He seemed to be considering something, and I realized that he had a lot to share, too, a lot hidden. “She ran away,” he finally said. “From responsibility. I’m sorry to say that about your very own mother, but that’s the truth of it.” One of his letters had used the word kidnapping, and I thought he might use that word again, but instead he added, “She’s fine, though. She’s somewhere. You don’t have to worry about that. You just have to live the life you were born to live.”

“I think that’s true,” I said, although I did not believe anything he was telling me, or that the lines in his face gave him any wisdom at all. I wasn’t wise, either—I am not even now—and I had done more in four years than he had done in all his days. And it did not feel like years. It felt like a thing from long ago, seen from far away in a glimpse. He was right about one thing: I was forgetting. Each thing we did—the firing of the rifle, the walk back, the eating of supper—would help to bury it down deeper. I said, “I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”

“Starving,” he said. The house burned bright in the dusk. The black stove warmed us at night, and the food tasted of nothing in particular. I did my homework at the table while the TV played in the other room. My father’s face hung on the wall, but my mother was nowhere to be found.

Friday, July 15, 2016