It's April, and it always rains in April. Lately, it has been pouring furiously, and Roberto thinks the deluge will wash out the present and wash in memories of the past. Rain always has that effect on him.
He is behind the steering wheel of his Prius, driving home after having spent an hour at the park with the twins. They were able to sneak in some playtime before the heavy clouds rolled in. Roberto knew that it would rain later, but while there was a momentary break in the clouds, he wanted to get the kids to swing on the swings and tumble on the grass, work them up and get them tired so that he can put them to bed early. The twins are eight years old. It's his weekend with them, his ex-wife will have them the following week. This has been the routine since they separated last summer.
The car radio is set to NPR. The commentator with the sexy voice is talking about Russia and its ruthless dictator, Vladimir Putin. Roberto has never seen a photo of this commentator, but he likes the sound of his voice. Christina and Randy are chit-chatting in the back seat, which makes it difficult to hear the radio. Roberto is driving fast because the rain is now falling relentlessly, and he wants to get home before the streets start to flood. It always floods in Bethesda. The windshield wipers are on, methodically wiping the raindrops like a handkerchief over a feverish forehead. Roberto likes the mix of all the sounds: the methodical windshield, the sexy NPR commentator, the screechy-scratchy high pitches that come out of the kids in the back seat. "You Said-You Promised-Shut Up" (the kids). "Swish-Drip-Swish" (the wipers and the rain). "Russia's dictator, now a war criminal" (the commentator).
Talk of Putin and his control over the Russian people brings Roberto back to his childhood years in Argentina, where he lived under a "benevolent" dictatorship. He left Argentina in 1985, when he was only ten years old, but the memory of the dictatorship looms over his family like a dark cloud. When applied to dictators, the word "benevolent" means that if you play by the rules, you will be benevolently spared. As long as you know the mandates of the system, and when to keep quiet, you will endure. Roberto's parents played and breathed by these rules.
The twins attend a Spanish-English bilingual school and lately they have been studying the capitals of Latin American countries. They are arguing in the back seat of the Prius as to the name of Bolivia’s capital. Randy insists it’s called La Paz. "Capital L, Capital P, small a, wiggly z," he says. Christina thinks it’s called "La Peace." They ask Roberto to give a fatherly ruling. He tells them the correct name of the capital of Bolivia is La Paz.
"See dummy!" says Randy triumphantly. "I told you it was La Paz!"
Their voices, so loveable when they got into the car ten minutes ago, are now digging a hole in Roberto's head the size of a pothole. Children, he tells them, let's lower our voices before I drive this car into a ditch. Daddy needs space for his thoughts.
"Well," says Christina undefeated. "La Paz means Peace, so we are both right."
Forced by the heavy rain, the clouds of past memories and family stories are flooding into Roberto’s head. In Argentina, his father was a businessman, and his mother had a teaching degree but chose to be a stay-at-home wife. He remembers them well dressed and strict. Like everyone else in their social circle, they sent their kids to expensive private schools, used nannies and maids, and kept quiet. Roberto remembers how proud his father was of the Renault he bought for the family.
In 1969, the same year that Roberto's parents were married, a guerrilla movement began. It was a small movement at first, initiated by mostly upper-middle-class young men who did not want to follow the rules anymore. Some people referred to the rebels as los Montoneros. At the parties that Roberto's parents attended, the thin businessmen wearing Italian suits would mention los Montoneros in whispers, and the dutiful wives wearing Parisian dresses would shudder or exclaim, "let’s not talk about that."
The rain is falling harder. The roof of the Prius sounds like a tin can being shot with rubber bullets. Christina and Randy are falling asleep in the back seat, but they are fighting it. They stay awake by picking quarrels with each other or by begging their father to answer trivia questions. Roberto can see Christina in the rear-view mirror. She has curly hair and wears glasses. She is smiling. She is a miracle. At a red light, Christina gets his attention again. "Dad, what's the capital of Brazil?"
Roberto remembers Elena, the family maid when he was a boy. She was the first person he ever met who came from Brazil. He adored her. When he was nine years old, he arrived home from school one day and found Elena outside of the house, on the sidewalk, sitting on top of a suitcase. She was crying. “¿Que te pasa, Elena?" asked Roberto.
"Nada hijo," she said. "I’m waiting for a bus. Go inside. Señora Isabel is waiting for you."
Roberto was wearing his private school garb, flannel pants, blue jacket, and a striped tie. Elena was wearing a well-starched apron over a shabby dress. You could see the spots of different color threads where she tried to patch over the holes. Elena had dark hair and fat legs. By Argentine standards, she was homely, but not in Roberto’s eyes. He lusted after Elena. If she was in her bedroom in the maids' quarters, he would try to force himself through the door. He wanted to see if the skin below her clothes was as beautifully brown as the rest of her. Graciously, Elena would play along with the boy, and occasionally she would unlatch the door just in time so that he could get a glimpse of the olive skin beneath the dirty dress. Roberto was in love.
Standing next to Elena on the sidewalk, Roberto couldn't understand why she was waiting for a bus in the middle of the week. She was not supposed to go home except on weekends.
A voice interrupts Roberto’s thoughts. It’s Randy in the back seat. "Brasilia," he says. "Brasilia is the capital of Brazil."
Roberto remembers leaving Elena alone on the sidewalk and going inside the house to ask his mother for an explanation. However, Isabel was on the phone and did not notice him. She was walking briskly from one side of the room to the other, carrying a phone with a twelve-foot cord. Roberto could hear the click-click clacking of her heels as she pounded them into the floor, angrily. She was wearing a green dress with patterned white flowers and thick pearls across her neck. Her lips, bright with red lipstick, are moving furiously, like a chimp chewing a ripe fruit. She’s screaming into the phone. “Es vergonzoso!"
Vergonzoso (shameful, abhorrent) was one of Isabel's favorite words. If Roberto picked his nose in public, Isabel would forcefully slap his hand away from the face, admonishing "vergonzoso." When Roberto wet his pants at age six, and they put him naked on the balcony as punishment, he was told that his conduct was "vergonzoso." When she caught Roberto secretly trying on her high-heel shoes, the black pointy ones with glittery buckles, Isabel threw one of the shoes at him and assured him that his behavior was vergonzoso. The shoe hit Roberto on the head. He knew the power of this word.
"Es vergonzoso," she screamed on the phone. "I told you we should not hire that Brazilian. I found one of my necklaces under her pillow." Silence. Roberto can hear his father's voice on the other side of the phone. He's trying to appease his mother. Isabel resumes her ranting. "She tried to tell me it was one of her own necklaces, as if I would believe that she could afford to buy something like this." More silence; more words from the invisible father on the other side of the phone. "You don't need to worry," concludes Isabel. "I already discharged her and ordered her to pack her bags. She will not get any references from me."
Roberto now understands why Elena has been thrown to the street, like abandoned trash. She forgot to play by the rules. Thus, Roberto lost his first love.
The interruptions from the back seat continue. "Oh, that's right. I forgot," says Christina. "They speak Portuguese in Brazil. Right?"
Roberto zones in and out of his memories. Now he listens to the NPR commentator who continues his report on the radio. He is talking about Russians who don't believe there are any civilian deaths in Ukraine, even when their family members living in Ukraine tell them of the bloodshed they have seen on the streets. "You must be mistaken," they tell their Ukrainian relatives. "It's shameful to be spreading such lies. We have to support our republic." The Russians are fed illusions and are reminded not to talk about atrocities.
Roberto doesn’t want to remember stories of atrocities. He was born in 1975, by which time Argentina had gone from a brief period of constitutional presidency to a brutal military dictatorship responsible for killing thousands of people identified by the junta as enemies of the state. Isabel joined the local Canasta Club and met other housewives eager to talk and say nothing at the same time. They spent many long afternoons playing cards and comparing the latest triumphs of their sons and husbands. They would argue about which places one should visit during vacation, where to buy clothes. They drank whiskey, sometimes red wine, and they dressed in the latest fashions. This fantasy, an illusion of European life in Latin America, had a heavy price tag. The system worked only if the country accepted the military dictatorship in power, and said nothing about the atrocities.
The Dirty War (or Guerra Sucia in Spanish) is the name that the military dictatorship used for the terrorism in Argentina from 1976 to 1983, during which the military hunted down political dissidents or anyone believed to be associated with the Montoneros. The police and the military were given power to do anything necessary to deal with the terrorist problem, and the violence from both sides was getting worse. In one month, all Renault dealerships were bombed by the Montoneros and all Renault cars were attacked. Renault cars were a symbol of bourgeois life.
Those who would not keep their mouths shut, or who dared to challenge, would be treated as Argentine cattle -- their heads are cut off so that they can bleed to death. And the blood could be seen on the streets. It could be seen during the early morning hours, before the street cleaners wiped away the evidence of the previous night's massacre. It was not every night, but it was often enough that if one cared to, if one looked and admitted what was happening, one would know.
At the next red light, Randy gets Roberto's attention again. "Dad, which was founded first, Brazil or the Spanish countries?" Roberto tells him that they were all founded at about the same time. "But Brazil was founded first because Spanish comes from Portuguese," persists Randy. Roberto explains that Spanish does not come from Portuguese, it comes from Latin. "Oh, that's right, that's what I meant," says Randy.
Roberto thinks Isabel knew about the atrocities. She noticed people who suddenly disappeared, family men who were not seen anymore and no longer spoken about. It nagged her. Her father's Basque practicality told her to be quiet, her mother's Italian sensibility urged her to speak up. She bit her lips.
After a night of executions in 1977, while playing cards with the other ladies of the Canasta Club, Isabel broached the subject delicately, once, just that once:
"Fulano disappeared," said Isabel, as she put down three kings and a joker. "No one knows what happened to him and perhaps . . . well, as they say."
Isabel discards a seven.
"He must have done something," answers Bebe, Isabel's best friend. She applies a bit of lipstick and powders her ghostly white skin. Then she realizes it’s her turn. She puts down three sevens and takes the deck. "You know that the ones that disappear are always the ones who have done something. It's a question of protecting our republic against those pigs."
"Why is that?" answers Isabel, while counting the cards in her hand. She has two black threes, and she knows these will be counted as points against her if someone goes out before she can put them down. "What have they done?" she asks.
"Don't be a fool," answers Bebe. "We simply will not speak of this. I am done with this nonsense. Vergonzoso. If there's blood, then let them clean it up and be done with it. We have to support our military." She put down all her cards. Three canastas. Two red threes. "This will be a tidy little win for me."
Roberto shakes off the memories and tries to concentrate on the driving and the kids. He thinks that Randy has confused Brazil and Portuguese with Rome and Latin. Randy is eight years old, soon to be nine and, from his perspective, all things are related, all facts are malleable. Roberto calls this fantasy-information, a mix of fact and fantasy. His job, as a father, is to bring clarity to his son's magical world. Roberto explains to the twins that Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French are all descended from Latin. That's why they are similar in many ways. "I know Dad," says Randy, getting annoyed, eager for this car ride to end and to get into his bed.
"Of course, no one speaks Latin anymore," continues Roberto. "That's a dead language."
Many middle-class families left Argentina during the period of la Guerra Sucia. The educated took jobs in Europe and North America. The Argentines dubbed it “exportación de cráneo,” the export of brainpower, or an Argentine diaspora. Even though democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, this was followed by a period of hyperinflation. In the years between 1975 and 1990, inflation in Argentina averaged 300% per year. In 1985, exhausted by years of dictatorship and wiped by years of hyperinflation, Roberto's father decided to emigrate to the United States. His brother was already living in New York and had established a flourishing business. He asked Roberto's father to join him. A military dictatorship had not been enough to cause Roberto's family to flee, but hyperinflation was enough.
The April rain continues to stir uncomfortable memories for Roberto, but he focuses his attention back on the kids. They are antsy in the back seat, so he tries to entertain them by teaching them about Romance languages. Both of them are exhausted from playing at the park, and they want to get home. "We're not listening to you," says Christina to her father. "Stop talking.” Roberto is angry with her insolence. He doesn’t want to raise his voice, so he chooses to be firm and clear instead. "Christina, don't tell me to stop talking. You don't tell your father to stop talking. When I was young, if I had talked back to my parents I would have been slapped across the face.”
Roberto remembers the slaps. When Isabel found out that her husband had made arrangements to leave the country, the news arrived by phone. Father on the other side of the phone, unseen as always, announced the so-called good news to Isabel. She sighed in a desperate relief, fear of leaving mixed with gratitude. Roberto is forty-seven years old now, and he can appreciate how difficult the decision to emigrate must have been for his parents when they were in their forties. They left everything they knew, everything they earned and attained, to start a new life in a strange country. Roberto can’t imagine where they found the energy and willpower to move and start all over.
After the phone call from Dad announcing the decision to move, Isabel was agitated. Gone was her usual calm elegance. She was sitting on one of the newly bought industrial sofas, popular at that time. It was asymmetrical furniture, in bold graphics and bright colors. Isabel knew it would be a very long time before they could afford such furnishings once they became immigrants. She pushed back her red hair, tidied up her chiffon dress, and turned to face the kids. "Well children!" she says, in an overly optimistic voice. "We are leaving for los Estados Unidos." Stunned silence. "Isn't that exciting?" Stunned silence. With a forced smile, she informs the children that “people eat cold rice in los Estados Unidos. Isn’t that fun?"
Roberto turns the car radio louder. The NPR commentator is detailing the number of deaths in various Ukrainian cities and towns.
The sounds of the tires and the traffic lulls Roberto back to his thoughts. He doesn’t know why Isabel told her three sons that in the United States they would eat cold rice. A bit of fantasy-information concocted by Isabel. She knew very little of what life would be like in the United States, and she was afraid, just like Roberto and his brothers. None of them wanted to leave their birth country. Roberto hated the idea of change. He didn’t want to deal with a new school, a new country, a whole set of new rules. He remembers screaming at his mom at the top of his lungs, "I hate cold rice!"
He didn't see her hand coming. Isabel slapped him across the face harder than he had ever been slapped before. His cheek turned red. The welt caused by her palm remained for several days. “Don't you dare scream at me," she said. "You will eat cold rice, and you will like it. Es vergonzoso." Even as the rules around her were falling asunder, Isabel made sure that Roberto would stay within her lines.
Roberto keeps driving. The kids are absorbed by the NPR commentator, and they are now wondering what it means to die in war. Christina wants to know if it's better to die from old age or die from an illness when you are young. Randy tells her it's better to die from an illness because even though you die young, you die in your sleep. Roberto doesn't know where he picked up this fantasy-information.
He remembers that six months after they arrived in the United States, Isabel received a letter from Bebe: “My dear, my friend, my loved one. We have finally found our oldest son, Oscar. He had been missing for several months. Today the military returned his body to us. They wrapped the corpse in newspaper, from head to toe. You can tell they had beat and burned his body. I have no words. I am now nothing but a ghost.”
Roberto read the letter carefully but did not shed a tear. He thought about Oscar. I remember him, he thought. Cool kid, long hair. Handsome. Tried to teach me to play the guitar.
When Isabel read the letter, she folded it and put it inside a box, never to be read again.
The clouds have burst open. Randy puts the air conditioner on full blast to defog the windshield. He can hardly see where he is going. The kids are oblivious to the weather. They are still talking about death. "What is death?" asks Christina.
"It's just like sleep," says Randy. "Except you never wake up. It's not so bad. You may become a ghost, but you won't have to do or say anything. Ghosts don’t talk." Such is the opinion formed by the child of a couple going through a divorce.
"That rule won't work for me," says Christina, defiant and adamant. "I always wake up. I can't sleep at night."
Now it is thundering and lighting. Roberto hates thunder and lightning.
After Argentina returned to civil rule in 1983, the president of the country ordered a government investigation which determined that nearly 11,000 people had been abducted by the government during the years of the Guerra Sucia, and 9,000 were presumed dead. Other reports in later years determined that the actual number of people killed during the Guerra Sucia was 30,000. No more than a few hundred of these were believed to be terrorists. During the years of the Guerra Sucia and soon thereafter, approximately two million people left Argentina. The Argentine diaspora.
Roberto and the kids have finally arrived home. He drives the Prius into the driveway and opens the garage door using the remote control. The twins run through the garage and into the kitchen. They are standing by the door, waiting for their father to come inside. He is still listening to the radio. The sexy NPR commentator is still talking about Putin and questioning how much longer the war in Ukraine will last, how much longer the Russian people will support Putin or continue to live in silence under such dictatorship, and how much longer before there is revolt.
They'll become ghosts, thinks Roberto. They'll just play by the rules set by the devil they know, and they'll become ghosts. Ghosts don’t talk.
Ernesto R. Beckford
April 11, 2022
© Ernesto Beckford 2022
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