Lily Meyer

Condors: Excerpt

     Graciela met the Canadian a week before the Army took over the university. She was in her office, rereading Where the Jackals Howl. She had her feet propped on the spare desk, Hebrew-English and English-Spanish dictionaries stacked on her lap, a pen in her mouth. It took her almost a minute to get herself upright to answer the knock on her door. Outside her window she heard students shouting, a quick clatter, then a motorcycle firing. She tucked the pen behind her ear and looked outside. There was a group of students on the sidewalk, but not enough for a demonstration, and they had no banners, no MLN or communist flags.

     There was another knock, and she turned to pull the door open. “Everything all right?” she said.

     “Everything’s fine.” It was Alba Mariani from History, her dyed-blond hair swirled two inches above her head. Behind her stood a thin man with a graying buzz cut and eyes so blue they made Graciela nervous. Alba beckoned him forward. He was more than a head taller than she was. “I want to introduce you to David Tenenbaum. David, this is Graciela Brechner Rosental,” Alba said.

     “Un gusto.” Graciela leaned to kiss him just as he extended his hand. His fingertips grazed her chest, and she felt him tense.

     “I’m sorry.” His accent was obvious, but not thick.

     “It’s all right.” She straightened, leaned on her doorframe. He’d be another Jewish academic, in the country for two months or two years, in need of a kosher butcher or an introduction to the community in Montevideo. Five years ago, when she returned from Buenos Aires to teach at the national university, the Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias had been full of Jews. Martín had been one of them. “You’ll get used to the kissing. Where are you from?”

     “Canada. Montreal.”

     “Very good. French or English?”

     He smiled slightly. His teeth were very white, very straight. Between the teeth and the eyes he must glow in the dark, Graciela thought as he said, “English. But please go on speaking to me in Spanish. I want to improve.”

     “Your Spanish is good already,” Graciela told him automatically.

     “Graciela speaks very good English,” Alba said, as if she hadn’t heard. “She works in Spanish, English, and Hebrew.”

     “What do you study?” the man asked.

     “Literature. Are you a historian?”

     He shook his head. “Environmental scientist. I’m working on the Río de la Plata. The”—he searched for the word, pinched his fingers together to indicate smallness—“microbes. From the cows. I study the impact of the cattle industry on water pollution.”

     Alba clucked her tongue against her teeth. “He came to History looking for Nahum, but Nahum isn’t here. So I thought, who else knows the colectividad? Of course, Graciela.”

     “Thank you, Alba.” Graciela turned away from the historian. “David, come in, take a seat. I’ll be glad to help you out.” Alba patted him on the back as he moved into Graciela’s room, then offered her cheek for Graciela to kiss. She smelled of talcum powder and roses. You’re turning into an old lady already, Graciela wanted to tell her. You’re not even fifty.

     The man was still standing, his back straight as a dancer’s. His shoulders were broad and well muscled for an academic. She brushed her thumb against the ring flat on its chain under her shirt. “Sit, sit.” She waved a hand at her chair, then closed her office door and leaned on it, arms twined behind her back. “The first thing to know is that we call ourselves the colectividad here. La colectividad judía.”

     “La colectividad judía,” he repeated, still standing. “That’s what Dra. Mariani meant.”

     “She didn’t explain?”

     He shook his head. “I asked for Dr. Nahum and she brought me to you. She told me everything else about you, but didn’t mention that you were Jewish.”

     Everything else. Graciela worked to keep her face still. “But you figured it out?”

     “Rosental,” he said, shrugging.

     She laughed. “Tenenbaum. What’s your second last name?”

     “I don’t have one.”

     “Well, your mother’s last name.”

     “Is that how it works?”

     “Yes. My name is Graciela Brechner Rosental, so my mother was Caro Rosental, my father is Francisco Brechner.” It seemed wrong, talking about her father as if he were still present. Graciela had been an undergraduate when he began to lose his memory. By the second year of her doctorate he had faded completely away. Her sister Sofía took care of him: clipped his nails, changed his diapers, sponged his chin. When Graciela came home for vacations she brought him suitcases of children’s books. Now the apartment was full of Mafalda, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Dr. Seuss, and her father no longer knew how to read.

    “I’m sorry about your mother.” The Canadian was looking straight at her. Those eyes, she thought. Dear God. “Has it been long?”

    “Oh, years. She died when I was fifteen.”

    “My father died last year.” His voice stayed calm, but it turned up at the end of the sentence, offering her the information.

    “I’m sorry for your loss.”

    He nodded once, like a check mark. “Thank you. Anyway, you asked my mother’s last name. Theriault.”

    “French?”

    “French Canadian. She converted to Judaism when she got married.”

    “And speaking of Judaism, tell me what you need. You want to know which synagogue to join? We’ve got Conservative, Orthodox, Sephardic. The Sephardic one is beautiful. Beth Israel.”

     He shook his head. “No, not that. I’m not religious. I just wanted”—he paused. “In a new country, it’s nice to know the Jews. Makes me feel more at home. Do you understand?”

      “Of course I do.” She could imagine, anyway. If she ever got out of Uruguay, made it to Mexico or Spain or North America, she would want to know the Jews. Unless she went to Israel. Martín would love to live on a kibbutz. “Have you spent time in many countries?”

     “Canada, the United States, Australia, Greece. And now Uruguay.” He ticked them off on his fingers. Big hands, the nails short but not bitten.

     “All for microbes?”

     “All for microbes.”

     Graciela twisted her hair into a bun and secured it with her pen. She could feel him watching her movements. “So what did Alba tell you about me?” she asked, trying to sound casual. “She’s such a gossip.”

     “That you teach Uruguayan literature and comparative literature and studied at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.”

     “What else?”

     His mouth twitched and he glanced downward. “She said that you used to be engaged to another literature professor, a radical, but he left the country.”

     Thank God. “That’s true.”

     “That must be difficult.”

     “I’m glad for him.” And she would be. She imagined Martín in Mexico City, writing for Excélsior, reading Homero Aridjis and Alí Chumacero, rereading Juan Rulfo.

     The bells of the Iglesia Matriz chimed five o’clock. Outside Graciela’s window the sun was beginning to sink toward the docks, turning the clouds’ edges to gold. She stood upright, looked at her watch for show, then picked up the Amos Oz and her dictionaries, saying, “David, it’s been lovely to meet you. I wish I could stay and chat longer, but I’ve got to head home. I promised my sister I’d be back early tonight.”

     “Would you like a ride? I rented a car.”

     “Oh, no. I’ll take the bus. Thank you.”

     “Are you sure?”

     “Yes, absolutely. The 121 stops three blocks from my building, and it comes every ten minutes.” The Canadian seemed disappointed as she kissed him goodbye, showed him out of the room. Don’t flatter yourself, she thought as she packed her books into her worn leather satchel, bought on her last visit to Argentina. As she locked her office door she looked up and down the hallway, but he had gone.

     He pulled up at the bus stop five minutes later. His car was brand new, a four-door Chevette, its turquoise paint unscratched. He cranked his window down and called, “Let me take you home. It looks like a storm’s coming.”

     Graciela tipped her head up to the sky. The air smelled metallic and clean. Maybe she didn’t have to be so careful, this once. Since the day Martín came to hide she’d kept the apartment sealed, let the porch plants die, never invited anyone in to drink a mate, not even her oldest friends or her future mother-in-law. The doorman, Luisito, knew that if someone came to the building asking for Graciela or Sofía Brechner, they were never at home, and old Dr. Brechner, well, nobody’s at home upstairs. Not these days.

     She hitched her bag on her shoulder. “Are you sure it’s no trouble?”

     “I promise.” He gave her another luminescent smile as she got into the car.

     “Thank you.”

      “Don’t mention it. Which way do I go?”

     “The easiest way is to take the Rambla to Parque Rodó, then go down Sarmiento. Do you know where that is?”

     He nodded, swung the car left. “Do you live on Sarmiento?”

    “Juan María Pérez. It’s off Rambla Perú. I’ll show you when we’re closer.” She wondered if she should have lied, told him a nearby street, like she did in taxis late at night. Just to be sure. 

     He had the air-conditioning going even though it was the middle of October. Her bare neck and collarbones prickled with goose bumps and she brushed her hair forward, glancing at David. He was focused on the road, watching the garbage cart to his left, the two buses jostling for position ahead. His shirt cuffs slid back, showing a plain silver watch with an olive strap. He can’t be secret police, she thought. He was too earnest, making too obvious an effort to get close already, and he felt too safe. Graciela knew better than to trust her instincts—understood that it was because he was an academic, because he was Jewish, because he was handsome—but what else is there to trust, she decided. I can believe in him at least for a ride home.

     They were driving down Rambla Francia, the river slow and brown alongside the road. There was no rain yet but the palm leaves clashed together in the wind. “I love palm trees,” David said.

     “Do you have them in Canada?”

     “Not in Montreal. I had only seen them in pictures before I went to graduate school.”

     “Where was that?”

     “Stanford. Near San Francisco.”

     “I know where Stanford is.” She meant to say it lightly, but her voice came out too harsh.

     “Of course you do. I’m sorry.”

     “No, no, it’s all right.” His ears and cheeks were flushed red. “So you did the same as me. I went to Argentina for school, you went to the States.”

     “Similar.”

     “Did you like it there?”

     “Stanford? I loved it.”

     “I loved UBA, too.”

     “Tell me about Buenos Aires. I flew there from Miami, but I didn’t see the city at all. I came straight to Montevideo.”

     “Oh, you have to visit.” Graciela pictured the tall, arched windows of the Facultad de Letras, the polished wood classroom floors, her studio apartment on Gregorio de Laferrere with its curtains sewn out of old flowered sheets and bookshelves made from fruit crates. “It’s beautiful. The architecture, it’s like half the buildings are wedding cakes. Wide streets, old trees—and bookstores everywhere.”

     “Bookstores?”

     “Yes. In any neighborhood in the city you can buy used books, new, poetry, novels, philosophy, textbooks, anything. Uruguayans are more cultured overall, but in Buenos Aires they’re very literary.”

     David chuckled. “I’ve never heard that before.”

     “Believe me, it’s true.”

     Parque Rodó grew in front of them, the carousel and Ferris wheel glowing in the dusk. The rides were almost empty, but a few families sat on the restaurant porches, the parents sharing liters of Patricia while their children ate pizza or lined up at the churro stands. As David turned into the park Graciela pointed out the window at the shuttered clubs, saying, “I went dancing there all the time when I was younger.”

     “But not now?”

     A sudden hardness moved into her throat. “No.”

     “Why not?”

     Because I used to dance there with Martín when he was my best friend, my boyfriend, my fiancé. He stepped on my toes during cumbias and tangoed through every slow song. We drank too many Fernet-colas and smoked too many Camels and one night when I was twenty-one he set the end of my braid on fire with the tip of his cigarette and put the flames out with his drink, and then to apologize he kissed me for the first time. Graciela shrugged. “Who goes dancing under a dictatorship?”

     After that they talked about small things, the springtime, the river. She had an urge to reach over and touch his arm, but instead she tucked her hands under her thighs, against the cool tan leather of the seat. At the corner of Juan María Pérez and the Rambla she got out of the car, telling David her street was one-way. She watched him drive away before walking up the block to her building. Luisito held the door, raised his worn houndstooth hat as she entered. “Long day?”

     She rubbed her eyes with one hand. “Long day. What about you? Everything all right?”

     “Yes, luckily.”

     “You have a good night, Luisito.”

     “You too, señorita.”

     In the hall mirror she looked drawn and sallow. She was losing weight. She needed to eat more meat. At least her hair looked healthy, thick and sleek, though it was time she asked Sofía to put in another round of highlights. Maybe tonight, she thought as she headed upstairs.

     The apartment was dark when she walked in. From the living room she heard snores, glanced in to see her father silhouetted against the west-facing window, head lolling on the side of his wheelchair. She walked down the hall to the kitchen, snapped the light on. Sofía had left a note on the butcher-block counter: G — WENT TO BUY SOMETHING FOR DINNER, DO YOU HAVE CASH? S XXX. Graciela reached into her purse for her wallet, found a dog-eared fifty-peso bill and put it next to the note. Tomorrow she would go to the bank, ask how much money was left. The university hadn’t paid her since Bordaberry gave up the government in June.

     There was a half-empty bottle of red wine next to the sink, and she uncorked it, poured two glasses and carried them into her room. Martín was reading, knees humped under the wool blanket. His dark curls were tousled, flat at the back, and she wondered if he’d been out of bed that day. When she left for work he was still asleep, but the night before he had woken her twice with his nightmares, shaking and screaming, his whole body clammy. He put down the book as she nudged the door closed. She stooped to kiss him, and he held her cheeks in his palms as he said, “Mi amor. How was your day?”

     “Fine.” She sat down, gave him a glass and took a drink from her own.

     “How’s the Facultad?”

     “Same as always. Alba Mariani brought me a Jew to take care of. A microbiologist from Canada.”

     Martín shook his head, gulped his wine. “I can’t believe foreign governments are still sending academics here. They might as well come out and say they support the Army’s regime.”

     “He studies the effect of cow shit on rivers. Not exactly political.”

     “Graciela.” Martín scowled, but his voice was patient. “There’s no such thing as not political. It doesn’t exist. Especially not now.”

     “I know. I just meant it’s not fair to decide this man is a fascist just because he’s here. For all we know, he belongs to the left.”

     “I doubt it.”

     Graciela drained her wine, set it on the floor and swung herself onto her stomach so that she was lying next to Martín. She propped herself on her elbows, and he kissed her hairline and said, “Come here.” She laid her head in the hollow beneath his shoulder. He smelled warm, animal, like rumpled sheets and unwashed hair. “Your sister brought me a copy of Marcha,” he said. “I can’t believe Quijano and Onetti can still publish. The Army is going to make them disappear.”

     “They’re too well-known.”

     “What if I started writing my column again?” Graciela tried to sit up, and he tightened his arms around her. “As if I were in Mexico. Nobody but Quijano would have to know that I’m here.”

     “And what if I’m wrong, and Quijano does disappear? How long till they track you down then?” You don’t even know how many writers have vanished now, she thought. How many intellectuals. How many Jews. Alejandra Faidengold got a bundle in the mail last week, her younger brother’s shirt and pants, covered in his blood, his shit. If I get a bundle like that I’ll die. 

     “I’ll be careful,” he said. “I’ll always be careful.”

     “Wait till we get you out of here. Then you can write whatever you want.”

     He stroked her arm, saying nothing. She felt her throat harden again, and her heart accelerate. Stop, she told herself. He’s safe. She arched upwards and kissed Martín hard on the lips. He kissed back, rolling her flat on the mattress and planting his knees on either side of her hips. “I wondered why you got home early.” His mouth brushed against hers. “Is this why?”

     She saw the Canadian in her mind, white teeth, hands wide on the steering wheel. Martín worked a hand inside her blouse. The cool pressure of his fingertips spread down her sternum, through her belly. “How’d you guess?”

     Afterwards she lay curled into his chest, feeling the sweat cool on his skin. They were touching at the hips, knees, and ankles. He worked his toes against the tops of her feet, tickling. Graciela laughed and wriggled away. Martín held out his arms. “Come back.”

     “I have to give Dad his bath.”

     “No, you don’t.”

     “I promised Sofi.” She shivered as her feet touched the cold floorboards. Martín stayed still above the blankets, arms pressed to his sides like fins. His pale skin was going slack under his jaw and there were dark moons under his half-closed eyes. “If we don’t do it he gets bed sores. Wheelchair sores. You know that.”

     Martín nodded without raising his head from the pillow. Graciela knew he would be asleep when she came back into the room. She touched his hair once before putting on her bra and underwear, jeans, a collared alligator shirt that had once been her father’s. The fabric was soft and nubby, frayed at the hems. As she left the room she heard Martín sigh but didn’t turn around.

     Graciela ran her father’s bath before waking him, boiling water on the stove to mix with the tepid, cloudy tap water. In the living room she crouched in front of her father’s chair, laid both hands on his knees. There was a shred of newspaper caught in the spokes of his left wheel. “Dad.” He didn’t move. “Dad.”

      One of his papery lids floated open. A tear rolled from the corner of his eye, and disappeared into the fine maze of folds by his nose. Graciela pushed him to the bathroom, parked the wheelchair next to the toilet and opened the drawstring of his pants, eased them to his ankles, his sweater and shirt over his fragile head, his skull creased like a turtle’s shell under the wisps of iron hair. His nipples sagged into the shadows of his ribs. “Cold,” he protested in his clarinet voice.

     “I know. Let’s get you in the tub.” She laced her fingers through his, counted to three and pulled him vertical. He was so light his bones felt marrowless. He trembled, his curled gray penis swaying against his bald thighs. Graciela walked him forward one step, then two, maneuvered him over the low wall of the tub. In the bath he sat obediently, paddling his hands in the water. She knelt, soaped a washcloth and ran it over his shoulders, beneath his arms, behind his gnarled ears. When she was a child her father had always been in charge of baths. He told stories while he washed and detangled her hair. Fairy tales where the princess escapes from the castle to found her own country, gaucho adventures on the Brazilian border, and her favorites, the Cuentos de Carne, set in the back room of their local butcher’s. At night the foods came alive, warded off burglars and stray dogs while romances blossomed between Mauricio Morcilla and Julia Jamón, Pepe Prosciutto and Clara Costillas, and Leo Longaniza and Bárbara Bife. The final installment had been a triple wedding, the butcher himself presiding.

     Graciela dipped the washcloth into the tub and wiped suds from her father’s back. “Do you remember Pepe Prosciutto?” she asked. Her father lifted his face to her, blinking. “He saved his girlfriend Clara from a hungry cat by pushing a meat cleaver onto its tail. Remember? The cat ran away howling.”

     “Howling,” her father echoed. He clapped a cupped palm on the surface of the water. “Ran away howling.”

     “That’s right.”

     His eyes widened suddenly, and he grabbed at the washcloth, wringing it from Graciela’s fingers. “Ran away. Who ran away? Graciela. Graciela’s gone.” He sank forward, his head dropping toward the water.

     “No, she’s not.” Graciela braced a hand against his chest and guided him upright. She remembered the Canadian’s strong fingers listing the countries where he’d worked. “Graciela lives here, in your apartment, with you. Graciela and Sofi. Both your daughters take care of you, just like you want.”

     “Yes,” he said. His lids were falling again. Water beaded in the coiled white hairs on his chest. “Graciela. Just like I want.”

 

 

 

Lily Meyer lives in Washington, DC. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Her fiction has appeared in The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg ReviewWords and WomenElbow Room, and The Round. She is working on her first novel