I spent the summer of my junior year in high school, when I was 16, as an exchange student living with a family in Chile. It was, until the end, everything an exchange experience should be: alienating, exciting, inspiring, challenging, mind-expanding, bonding, frustrating, sometimes dull and boring.
Then one day I was asked to serve as confessor and grant absolution. One of the brothers in the family told me he had recently participated in a gang rape. He and his younger brother, and a cousin. He was distraught. He wept. He asked for my forgiveness. I would not give it to him.
I wrote a short story about it. I struggled with this story; I even spent a few weeks at an artist’s colony tearing it apart and putting it back together again. It was published in Carve Magazine 3.3 (2002).
If I were writing it now, there are things I’d change. It’s flawed. But it’s mine. And it seems like the right time to bring it back into the world. #MeToo #Ibelieveher
On the skyway in Chicago a big black semi-cab passes her going a million miles an hour and blows out two of the windows in her wagon. It’s a freak accident—there are no marks on the paint, no surface dents when Rosalba steps out to examine it. Just two windows shattered clean through, an hysterical cat, and enough money to make it to the Land of Enchantment.
Iowa treats her alright. It doesn’t rain until she reaches Omaha. In Lincoln her ex-boyfriend Brendan helps patch the gaping windows with big swatches of five-mil drop cloth and duct tape. They rescue Hymie, her cat from the rafters of his parents’ garage and reward themselves at the Village Inn.
The waffles hesitate in her stomach like immigrants. It is Brendan’s plastic, duct tape, hometown, hospitality, and she has carefully avoided him for two years. At least she has plenty of her own cigarettes.
Brendan is the same: tall, hunched, and ruddy, his eyes alternately predatory, lascivious, expectant, defensive. There lurks in him an ever-present feeling of defiant shame. When she meets his family she thinks she understands why. His father is a mathematics professor; Brendan had better be bright. Brendan is the oldest of six; he had better be first. They are Irish Catholic; he had better feel contrite about everything except drinking Guinness with the guys. They live in genteel disarray and relative poverty; he had better sport ragged sweaters, never clean his room, and make cutting his own hair, badly, a point of honor. He won’t be staying in his hometown much longer.
When she leaves Brendan even the road seems to be his. She thinks of how he knows every anonymous tree, how often this or that billboard has been re-papered, whether there’s a Hardee’s in the next hundred miles. A friend once told her, impatiently, that it isn’t an inverse proportion: you can’t make up for the lack of sense in others by thinking too much yourself. She suspects Brendan’s antics are an effort to make her release her death-grip on her self-control. But that will never work. She can escape him just as she is escaping DC.
In the capital city, flagship of the American Dream, life had been at odds. The black ghettos glared down 16th Street, a straight shot to the White House. At night she heard gunshots, then choppers searching out crack demagogues. Against someone’s better judgment, Rosalba felt little fear about this, or many other things. If eighty percent of life was showing up, the other half was sheer psychological advantage. One college night she had been walking alone at midnight near the wharf in Annapolis, feeling restless and, obviously, reckless. It was December; she wore a man’s gray flannel overcoat picked up at a thrift store. Her hair had been short like a boy’s, so when she heard a man make pace behind her and say, Got a light?, and turned to hand him her matches, his eyes went wide and he took a step back, as if he’d offended some secret code. In fact, he had: men should not approach women alone on the street late at night unless they have malintentions. He was just a regular working-class bar-fly kind of guy, too, without sophisticated mechanisms of recovery. Rosalba had sucked on her cigarette, smiled, retrieved her matches and gone on as calmly and gleefully as she could. She loved the element of surprise.
The thirteen women in her Watergate office had buzzed consolingly like a bourgeois wiccan around the chairman, a decrepit former Nixon appendage. She sat in the receptionist’s foyer like a warty toad, a nervous filly in the wrong hands. Her lipstick was the wrong shade, but she couldn’t figure out which was the right one among all the little blobs on all the counters in all the pharmacies and department stores and boutiques. She was always late out of a sense of misdirected rebellion. When the season was warm she invariably sweated dark, unsightly patches onto her silk blouse in a guilty attempt to make up for lost time in the last few blocks. Then there was the fact she was developing corns.
One balmy evening she was walking home to Madam’s Organ up Rock Creek Parkway, feeling relaxed in her yellow Converse high-tops and navy suit, when she spotted an adolescent raccoon scrabbling in an empty tuna can beneath an azalea bush. Unable to face another day of peanut butter, she’d left her sandwich languishing in her briefcase, so now she stepped off the sidewalk to fish it out. The raccoon stared at her curiously, then went back to fussing with the can. She tossed the sandwich with a smug sense of a deed well done.
But the man in the Pentagon t-shirt appeared out of nowhere. “Stop!” he barked. “Don’t you know you shouldn’t touch wild animals! It will bite you—you could get rabies. Get away from it!” His bald head beaded with sweat from his jog, and his middle-aged blue eyes fixed on her in rational panic. She was sure that if she resisted he would actually grab her arm and twist her away. Failing to utter something appropriate like “Fuck you, asshole. I like nature,” she picked up her bag and began walking north.
After twenty paces or so she turned to look back. The man was gone, the raccoon was eating her sandwich. Mission accomplished, but they were fine and she was angry. She went home out of her way through the National Zoo out of some perverse sense of consolation. From her apartment she often heard the monkeys discussing the evening or the lions roaring, and although she hated their captivity, she also felt comforted by their being nearby, like accomplices. Walking home that day she decided she would have to abandon them–she’d had enough of her own imprisonment–and settled on escape as the only option, home as the only place to go.
When she leaves Brendan it is the silence that impels her and the emptiness that frightens her. Around her lie all these lives scattered like stars in the vastness. At any moment she can pull off the interstate and into someone’s driveway who might have warm pies cooling in the kitchen. They might be watching golf and drinking beer or grading summer students’ algebra papers. There is too much limitless possibility in that immense space–she needs to eliminate one of the options.
The monotony of the road sends her into the driver’s trance. Rosalba automatically flips the cassettes, flicks ash out the window, reaches back to pet the cat tucked up behind the driver’s seat on top of layers of clothes unpacked to make them fit. She stops by the side of the road to pull on a sweatshirt to ward off the chill. The clouds are low and dark, the rain misty rather than wet, and she removes her sunglasses that tint the sky a dirty ochre and darken the acres of farmland a forest green.
Around a bend a large white object glows like an unearthed grub. As she approaches, it mutates into a fallen pregnant cow straining to rid herself of her burden, then into the carcass of a tractor trailer lying on its side, snout pointed west. Huge skid marks trail off the road into the swampy mud.
The Volkswagen van passes her on the right. The driver makes odd signals through his rear window and she realizes he is asking her to follow more closely. His right hand sweeps forward in an eager gesture, but she doesn’t want to overtax her heavy car, even on the flats of Nebraska. She lags, he persists. When she keeps the pace he applauds with broad signs of approval, which strike her as somehow playful and childlike. She concedes–why not, it’s something to do–and keeps the California license plate within easy reading distance: WTC68509.
The afternoon crawls by; she is bored and cramped and hopes he’ll turn off so she can take the next exit alone and relax. But the idea of a driving companion appeals to her, so when he signals for her to exit with him, she decides to follow.
At the Shell station he comes around rapidly to greet her as she steps out of her car.
“You are my driving sister!” he proclaims in a German accent as he shoves out a hard hand for her to shake. He is a short, sturdy, middle-aged man the color of a polished hazelnut. “What happened to your car?”
She tells him the story matter-of-factly, and he leans over to read the enamel writing on a window. “There is a guarantee on these,” he says. “Call your dealer, they will replace them. I know, I am an engineer. I rebuilt this van myself. Call them! You learned to drive after a while, no? Finally you were drafting behind me. You figured out how to catch the air. I learned to team-drive in my travels across America. It is fun, yes?”
“Sure,” she said thickly, still dazed from the road.
“Are you going west? Because then we can keep going together and we can stop somewhere for coffee soon.”
“OK…. I’ve just got to make a phone call.” In Boulder her friend Hannah wasn’t there but the machine was: Wednesday, west of Lincoln, 3 p.m., see you tonight. Just in case someone needs to look for a body.
When they drive on the music jars her and she clicks off the radio. The naïve bubble of curiosity and relief has slipped away. Is she crazy? She looks out the window—a blurred clapboard house on the empty plain. She can make the world smaller by eliminating one of the options.
At four-thirty they exit onto a rest area whose entrance sign reads “See Our Sculpture Garden.” The clouds are clearing in patches to the west and the sun is thrusting its limbs into the trees and muddy hollows.
“Come in!” he calls from the van as he opens the sliding door. “Please, make yourself comfortable. I am just going to get some water for the pot.” The interior is as neat and compact as the man himself. A black, soft-sided briefcase with a plastic tag lies on a plaid blanket. She holds it flat in the palm of her hand to read “Dieter Eidermann, C&P Auto Consulting, Berkeley, CA.” She writes this on a scrap of a receipt she finds in her jeans pocket with a pen she finds in her sweatshirt.
“It’s American coffee,” she says when he returns, looking at the Folger’s can.
“I like it better than the German. People think I’m crazy! I have cookies—are you hungry?” He offers her two versions of wafers with creamy middles, vanilla or lemon, fills a cup and hands it to her with a matching saucer. Red Chinese dragons belch fire against a turquoise background. “So,” he says, sitting on the bench beside her, “A good break, no? It has been too much driving. My foot is sore. Where are you coming from?”
“Washington, DC. I was there a couple of years. Have you been?”
“Oh yes, many times. It is a beautiful city, so many monuments, nice museums. But why did you leave so soon? You are so young.”
“I like the west better, I guess.”
“Well, I prefer the west also. I am going back to California. I used to work for Mercedes-Benz in Germany and I transferred here when I married my wife. I like it here in the States. Six months here, six there.” He pauses to look out the window. “I wanted to stop here because the sign says there is a sculpture garden. I can’t see it–can you?”
“I think it’s that white thing behind the trees.”
He is disappointed when they get up close. “This is sculpture? Nothing but a piece of painted steel? A car is better art! I should know, I am an engineer!”
He laughs and glances at her, but she walks away to examine it, a big white arc about twelve feet high with notches like stair steps leading up to the sky cut out of the outside curve. The sun pierces the clouds and shines on it so that it is blinding against the distant green and black earth and the iron-colored sky to the east.
“I kind of like it,” she says. “It’s a bridge, a stairway to heaven, out in the middle of nowhere. Where you least expect it, where you think it’s godforsaken.” She sits down at a redwood picnic table. The wind feels good against her, like a friend, stirring up its sense of undefinable longing.
“Hmm. Very interesting.” He seems unconvinced. “My son, he would laugh at this. My wife, too, she would have laughed, she was always laughing.”
“She is not your wife any more?”
“No, she is dead for seven years, cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“Yes.” He doesn’t look away and she wishes he had. It makes him seem…cunning. “She was so young, really. Forty-five. And my son, he was very sad. It was hardest to watch him suffer.”
“Is he better now?”
“Yes, better. He is trying so hard. He is in Germany, studying electrical engineering. He has a girlfriend, and he asks me, Dad, how do I ask a girl to go to bed with me? This is very funny. He is only fifteen. I say, why do you want to go to bed with a girl for? He says, well, because everyone else has. Do you love her? He says yes. Well, if she loves you too then maybe she will want to go to bed with you and then it is easy, no? That is a better reason than because Franz, Hans, and Jan say they have and they are all liars anyway. How do you know they have done it? So he goes ahead and does it and comes back and says, Dad, I did it. And you know what? It is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me, it was so beautiful! So I ask him, did she enjoy it too? Oh yes, he says. Well, then, it really was beautiful.”
What she wonders is how he knew she enjoyed it, too.
“And you, do you have a boyfriend?” he asks her.
“No. Is that important?”
“Oh come now, surely it is important! There is nothing better than being in love, than making love. You are a pretty girl. You are what, nineteen, twenty? You are not a virgin, are you?”
She laughs stiffly. “No, of course not. But it’s none of your business.”
“So, you see,” he says, “You know. It is everyone’s business. Is there not a more beautiful feeling than that? I like to love a woman–to make her WOMAN. None of these girls in their mini-skirts, they are not women. When I was in Germany managing a plant we had both men and women engineers. They were all good, well-trained. One day one of the girls comes to work with a mini-skirt. I had to pull her aside! In my office I said, Now, why are you doing this? Me and all the other men here cannot concentrate on engineering. Go home and put something on that covers you up more. And you know what? All the women began wearing pants! They were so happy. They came to me and said, We are glad you do not want us to wear mini-skirts!”
Rosalba thinks this does not make a convincing seduction story. “That was generous of you.”
He smiles triumphantly. “Ah! You are suspicious!”
“That’s a cruel word. Shouldn’t I be?”
“How terrible! Why? What has happened to you?”
“Nothing–nothing to me. But I watch and listen and people have stories, you know.”
“What kind of stories?”
This is a rhetorical question. Over his head arches the brilliant arc of the sculpture. Someone is parked in the lot in a Tercel, eating a sandwich and drinking from a thermos. A flock of semi-trailers roars by on the interstate, then the space fills in behind them and she feels they are even more alone.
“There is one story I can think of,” she says, pulling a cigarette from the pack and cupping it from the wind to light it.
She is in Chile as a sixteen-year-old exchange student and it happens two weeks before her scheduled departure, in early August, when the oldest brother, Rugiedo, celebrates his twenty-first birthday. The family throws him a party and invites all kinds of people, serves all kinds of seafood. They tell her to drink only wine with the seafood because water will make her sick, but she doesn’t like wine yet and there is nothing else to drink. Maybe it is an old wives’ tale, maybe they want to see her get drunk. But it turns out to be true, because she gets violently sick, the kind of sick that wakes her up sweating out of a sound sleep.
Three days later she goes south to Lebu, a lumber town on the ocean, with the oldest brother and a friend of the father’s, some older guy she’s never met. When they arrive the family friend goes off to do his business and the brother drives her down to the shore.
He tells her he wants to tell her something. He tells her that after his birthday party he and the guys–his brother, his cousin, some friends–go out to drink písco at the nearby beach. It’s about three in the morning and his friend is driving. He tells her that right outside the city limits a young woman is hitching a ride. Except she wants to go back into town, the way they have come, for a doctor or a prescription or something, an emergency. So the brother’s friend, who’s driving, tells her to get in, even though there isn’t really any room in the car, they’re six in a little Toyota just like this one, and he makes her get in the back and she sits on the brother’s lap. But instead of turning around to go back to Concepción he keeps driving towards the beach. He says she asks the driver to stop and let her out, but the guy just laughs, he is very drunk, they are all very drunk, or that’s what he says. The cousin asks him to stop, too, but instead he pulls down a dark side road–and they rape her. Even the ones who asked him to stop.
Rosalba feels as if all Chile is puking up vile gray fish into an ocean of red mud. She smells death in the south. The car feels oppressive but she doesn’t want to get out because its shell protects her from the encroaching wall of clouds. He is just sitting there crying, looking at the waves.
She brings the cigarette to her lips. Her throat rasps. Her chest hurts. The reflection off the arc blinds her. It vibrates against the slate sky. The German seems to be waiting for her to finish so he can say something.
“So I ask him why in hell is he telling me this, and you know what he says? That it is the worst thing he has ever done and he wants me to forgive him, that he has to have my forgiveness.”
“What did you say? Did you forgive him?” The German looks at her intently. The wrinkles around his eyes are white from squinting into the sun.
“No. I said no, never. That it was unforgivable. And he asked why not, and I knew he sort of meant, because it didn’t happen to you, but there was no way he could say that. And I said it didn’t make any difference, that it was as if it had happened to me, after all, I had lived with his family all this time and thought they were my friends and then they go and commit this horrible fucking crime. I couldn’t have forgiven him even if I’d wanted to. I didn’t understand why he’s telling me this in the first place except to ease his conscience. By then he was crying, really crying, and that was something, this man sobbing with this teenager out in the middle of nowhere.”
He is just sitting there crying, looking at the waves. She is not frightened, but her heart hurts badly, in a physical kind of way. Eventually he stops crying enough so she can hear the stump and rush of the waves and he can take them back to Lebu to wait for the family friend. It is not until they are silently driving the three hours back to Concepción that she begins to feel frightened.
“What about the others? What did you do?” The German asks.
She doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know if there is a law in Chile. She doesn’t know if she wants to turn them in, and she feels like turning them in is something a much older person should do, that she is not up to the task, she does not know how to be the law. She doesn’t know what happens to the woman, or how to look for her. She thinks of the woman and how the only thing she had been brave enough to do for her, for both of them, the woman because she could not speak, herself because she had been betrayed, was confront them, but the woman will never know and it is not enough. No one mentions the woman again, until now.
“What a sad story,” Dieter says. “That is terrible. The world is a bad place. That’s just the way it is.”
He rises to his feet as if he has put the story behind him with a clapping of hands and is ready to get back to work. “Come, it’s very cold now, let’s go back in the van. I was thinking: You are going west, like me, you will need a job. We could do each other a favor. I am going to Mexico on a business trip, I will need someone who speaks Spanish. I could pay you, it would be a job. Can you type?”
“Can you take dictation?”
“Well, that doesn’t matter much. I was thinking, you could stay here in the van tonight, it is getting late, we are tired. We could stay up, talk, get to know each other. It would be nothing else, truly, if that is what you are thinking. It will be just like when Linda and I went camping. There is an extra bed, you know, that pops out of the top.”
She doesn’t answer immediately and looks away from him at the summer sweep of the plains, the black of a plowed field, the white of a distant farmhouse. The galloping clouds mark the time as neatly as any clock. She realizes that all she wants is to climb into her car and drive west, away from the picnic table, the van, this man.
“No, no, thanks,” she says. “I’ve got to go. I can’t stay. My friend’s expecting me.”
He is surprised, and the shine on his face fades.
“Chicken!” he cries, moving his hands in a quick, indistinct motion she cannot translate. “You are a chicken!”
“No,” she says, because she doesn’t know how to explain and she doesn’t have to argue. She pulls her legs out from under the picnic table, stands up. “No. Thanks for the coffee.”
When she reaches her car she turns back. “Don’t you know enough already?”
In her car she puts her hand to her mouth, breathes, starts the engine. A hiss of wet sand kicks up from the tires as she pulls out of the lot. The cat yawns and stretches. The sun is setting and coloring the white arc carrot orange.
Is he right? Is she a coward?
There are nine of them besides herself in the house in the outskirts of Concepción: two parents, three sisters, two brothers, a cousin, and a friend of the older brother Rugiedo. Work, school, sleep. The mother’s sentimental, pleading face in the bed, her back out again; her Yanbal cosmetics sit in a paper bag in the corner of the room beneath a rumpled sheet. When does she sell them? There is only one car, and Papá has taken it to town with Ursula. Ursula who never speaks, who smiles in her plaid jacket, keeping lonely, humorous secrets. She is their Mona Lisa, warm and touchable and gone. Her younger brothers and sisters will banter and sing, but she goes to town every day with Papá to diagram blue lines and coils, write AC/DC here and VOLTS there, charting every electric charge but her own.
Marta sleeping off her night-shift at the home for orphaned girls. The house on a side street with a dingy yellow face where the passersby scuff the wall. The girls are tiny, tall, all wild hair and laughing eyes. One of them takes to her–Marta brings them their first real-live American, like a proud catch–wants her to run, play, pulls her by the arm through the house to show her the dolls in a disheveled row. The girl picks up one with yellow hair and blue eyes and a hairline crack where the plastic has shrunk away up one leg and into the torn bloomers. As if she is decaying from inside from a secret wound. The doll’s blue eyes are glassy and unseeing, like a tourist’s.
The girl loves this doll, throws her against the wall to prove it, laughs, looks at Rosalba. Rosalba only offers a Mona Lisa smile. You will never have yellow hair and blue eyes. But the cracks are already forming. Your black eyes will cease to laugh.
She goes to see the girls march one Sunday in the weekly parade, Pinochet’s show of force. On these days she can take photos of the carabineros in their stiff green wool uniforms and caps standing along the curb to oversee the marching girls, their hair no longer wild, their eyes no longer laughing, in their maroon polyester sport uniforms and Marta marching along beside them. And behind them the club of the blind with their white sticks ticking from side to side, others marching with linked arms behind the leader, a blind woman holding up a sign reading “Assistance Committee for the Visually Limited,” or something like that, and all the other clubs marching down O’Higgins Boulevard and around the plaza.
The folkloric dancers spin in the plaza gazebo. The smell of roasting peanuts decamps in the air. The carabineros laugh, joke, meet your eye, as if they really want to forget.
The day she goes to the parade is nearly the only day it doesn’t rain for the three months of her stay. It rains the day of the riots when she forgets her umbrella and flattens herself against a dark wall to take pictures, won’t that be amazing, of the tangle of students and police and arcing tear gas and stones thundering only a block away in front of La Universidad Católica.
But Ursula and Rugiedo find her. Rugiedo leaps out and grabs the camera from her hands, pushing her towards the car.
Ursula breaks her silence. Get in, you idiot! Get in! You cannot take pictures with your stupid camera! Rosalba climbs into the back seat and they are submarining through clouds of tear gas. You stupid fool! Do you want to be thrown in jail? Do you want all of us to be thrown in jail? You can’t just do what you want! We are responsible for you! Do you want to get us in trouble?
She is angry, scared, angry. You are cowards! she shouts back. What do you think they are rioting for, anyway? Don’t you have any self-respect?
Rugiedo sits in the passenger seat and says nothing. Usually it is he who laughs, jokes, entertains. Now he has nothing to say. Nothing of him is visible except for his small hands, clenched together, the back of his shiny black head.
Ursula speaks in a still voice: It is none of your business whether we want to go to jail or not. How can you be so inconsiderate.
She keeps her mouth shut as they drive across the long bridge spanning the Bío-Bío to the other side. From time to time she looks at herself in the rearview mirror.
It rains the day after the riots, when she goes to town in spite of her lost umbrella because she is still angry. A stupid thing to do, but it endears her to them again, arriving back at the house soaked and feverish, though she didn’t intend to get sick. The mother tucks her into her own bed–it is warmer in there, she insists, plus there is an old television to watch, and who wants to have a fever and stare at a blank wall? She feeds her fish soup and cherry Kool-Aid.
The only program on the air aside from game shows is dubbed re-runs of “Bewitched,” interrupted by three commercials. One for laundry soap, one for candy, and one for ghosts. Long lists of exiles supposedly returning to Chile scroll silently down the screen.
Don’t you know what they say? Mendozo, the youngest, asks when he comes in to pay his respects.
Just this: “Chile is divided into two parts: the cowardly, who stayed, and the stupid, who left.”
Rosalba can’t understand how someone her own age can be so cynical. Why aren’t you doing anything about it?
He laughs–Are things better anywhere else? Even in the U.S.?–and disappears out the door.
She turns back angrily to the TV. Pinochet is in a generous mood for the tenth anniversary of his rule. He smiles and speaks like a gentleman in his speech. Lily Marlene–someone told her it is his favorite song–plays in the background. Towards evening a Russian defector danseur comes on the screen. Static scars his handsome face and the cadaverous blue light saps his vigor. The scenery blurs as if tear gas were misting over it and he is nothing but a macabre clown flying in a wasteland.
Rugiedo comes in to stay after dinner. He switches the channel to re-runs of Dallas and sits on the bed. He takes her hand and begins to stroke it. She can barely breathe. Her eyeballs feel swollen. She doesn’t move. All evening.
Who knows whether it is the fever or his fingers that makes her want and not want to withdraw her hand? Something unspoken has been springing up between them. The parents are concerned. She and Altamira, one of the sisters, are supposed to like each other because they are the same age and Altamira has also been an exchange student to Akron, Ohio. But Akron is completely meaningless as far as Rosalba is concerned, nothing like Arizona or Puerto Rico, and they don’t really have much in common, so Altamira eventually relinquishes the role of traveling companion to her older brother. When they go to Lota, a coal-mining town where the owner’s estate is now a public garden poised on a hill, he walks with her and explains the history of the town, points out geographical markers, brings her a peacock’s feather. If the car is full he sits next to her. He is the family favorite: weak, spoiled, charming, vain. Like most people used to getting their way, he thinks he is irresistible.
Collipulli–was that an Indian name? The houses are long and low and stained red at their roots, hennaed by the rust-colored mud splashing in the rain. The plaza is small and open and deserted, centered around a brackish pond and a parched fountain. They go see one of the mother’s relatives, a sick woman living in a part of town where the streets are hilly and cobbled. The narrow green hallway leads to a small room papered on one side with a gigantic photographic print of an orange tropical sunset silhouetting a small forest of palms. On a space heater a kettle boils eucalyptus leaves. Garden flowers crowd thickly against the window. The relative adjusts her beaded sweater, her gold rings. She speaks slowly and nasally, like a person who has been ill a long time. Her illness, her children, what a charming American.
They spend only an hour with her, but the sun seems to have shifted inordinately when they emerge.
The grandmother of a cousin is crazy with winter. She has gone crazy eighteen times at her last count, isn’t that right, Jorge, and that is not much for her age. Such winters are enough to drive anyone crazy.
In Cipréses the hydroelectric dam harnesses the Maule high up near its source. The wild thundering river stirs up a frigid wind to tangle their hair. They weave through the turbines in the vast control room. When Rugiedo catches her around a corner in a calculated surprise, he kisses her and she is happy.
The wind blows, the blank faces of the Andes ponder the cries of the ravens. From the kitchen window she sees a lake beneath a mountain standing against the pale sky, its peak so crisp and mottled and sharp she thinks she will cut her palm on the image.
On their way home into the valley they take a photo of her as she squints into the winter sun, wondering if a train will pass and blow them like fleece into the Maule running below. The black iron arches of the highest railway bridge in South America seem flimsy from the highway, like filigree. Now they nervously pick their way across, gripping the slight steel handrail because there is nothing between the ties but a hundred meters of space, cottonball trees, and smooth crushed green velvet pastures tempting her to plunge. Looking down makes her dizzy; she focuses on the other end, from where the train will come. The women are afraid to cross–she is not, she will do it, even if they will never take her to a fútbol game because only putas go there. She begs, pleads, demands, but they refuse.
It’s too ugly for women, Rugiedo says. They drink, they fight.
Once they drive through the red-light district in Concepción on their way to someplace else but there aren’t many streetlights and no whores outside, you have to go and knock on the door. She asks the boys–Mendozo, Rugiedo–if they have been there, but, as she expects, they won’t answer directly. She understands without having to be told, but she wanted to ask them anyway, to see if they would tell the truth. If they say yes, they will admit to her to being less gallant than they have pretended. If they say no, they will admit to each other that they are less male than they have pretended. Mendozo rolls his eyes at her as if he can read her thoughts, and stares out the window.
Rugiedo plans the trip to Lebu, on the pretext of showing her more of Chile, with a friend of the family who is going there on business. They climb into the old Toyota; drops of rain tremble and slide silver down the glass. Rugiedo is cheerful yet withdrawn; something presses down on him. She can see that he wants to escape.
The man starts the engine, and they begin driving through the harbor town where the gulls swoop like nets and the black ship holds lie sunk beneath the pale surface of the water. Tired horses droop before the carts bearing fish that glisten even in this dull morning, waiting for their shabby, jabbering fishmongers to drive them along the pebbled streets. The car drifts up and into rain-sodden hills and green trees, there is nothing like the rhythm of the road when it comes abreast a cliff and there is the ocean like nothing else, again and again and always.
The man drives the old Toyota down a long, narrow highway cut through a tall forest of black pines. They arrive at a village on the sea, muddy and still. The man leaves Rugiedo with the car and goes off to do his business. They drive down to the beach, park.
She wonders what is wrong with him. Why he is sunk down inside himself.
He wants to show her La Cueva del Toro, a rocky cave the briny breeze blows through. He carves her name in the brittle sandstone. By itself, not with “loves Rugiedo” after it, then cuts a square around it with the date, 10/viii/83. It makes her uncomfortable to think of herself as a shrine he can come to again and again.
They mount a slippery hill to a bluff overlooking the sea that is a dull, angry gray. A little way out a wall of clouds obscures the horizon. Along the shoreline she can see the village, its wooden structures, an abandoned backhoe. There is nothing infinite in view except the sea smashing itself on the rocks.
They go back to the car, then, to wait, because it is cold. Rugiedo says he wants to tell her something. His small, delicately veined hands shake as he lights his Winston. She has never seen a man sob before.
Eventually she talks to the others who live in the house, one by one. At first they pretend not to know what she is talking about. She knows better than that; she repeats the story back to them. Finally Alberto, the cousin, says he blacked out from the písco, that he can’t remember anything, nothing, nothing. They are sitting in his bedroom at the back of the house, in the addition that was built onto the kitchen. The watery winter sun lights up the ends of his curly black hair and paints a curve along his white neck. Rosalba wishes she could feel sorry for him, because she knows he is lying. She can see his fear, weakness, and regret. Nothing, nothing. Alberto is distraught, he begins to cry. She waits, but he won’t say more, so she leaves him alone in the room.
But Mendozo is made of stone. In the narrow gray kitchen where they lean against the counters only a few feet apart he says he did it and he isn’t going to apologize and he doesn’t see why he should.
It’s none of your business. My big pendejo brother just shouldn’t have told you, that’s all.
He looks at her with a scorn and loathing that no one has ever directed at her before, which terrifies her and takes out her gut leaving in its place a huge empty nothingness. She intends to replace it, but does not yet know how.
The sisters will not say anything except that they are mad at him for telling her. The father knows but says nothing and the mother knows nothing. They are all hiding it from the mother and make her promise not to tell. But they all know. Every one of them knows.
Later she receives one letter from the mother, which she answers, and one letter from Rugiedo, which she doesn’t. One story after another. They change in the telling, or the not telling. One word altered here and there and everything is changed. And everything is the same.
She is tired of stories. They coil their elusive bodies around her in the night and she dreams of snakes leaping up from the ground to bite her in the center of her forehead. They whisper in her ear, she cannot find any silence, any words of her own, and the sound of her own voice carrying on conversations in strange tongues startles her into waking night after night.
She is nothing, only stories.
In Julesburg, Colorado, Rosalba pulls over into the Welcome Center to take Hymie for a walk in the grassy area after her own pit stop. Hymie hates leashes, but that’s just too bad.
“Ya want the grass, ya gotta have the leash, Hymie.” Hymie chaws on some blades for a minute, sniffs a tree, rolls on his back. Soon enough, he tries to run but gets snagged and writhes against the leash so that she has to hold onto him so he won’t slip away.
She already feels an enormous sense of relief just being in Colorado, as if the Mississippi River isn’t really the cultural edge of America’s frontier, but the western border of Nebraska. The wind smells fresher, but maybe that’s just because she isn’t crazy about hog farming.
With Hymie in her arms, she rounds the corner of the Welcome Center, heading back to her car, when someone headed in the opposite direction collides right into her.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” they both gasp at once.
The water from the coffee pot has splashed all over her and the cat, who claws furiously at Dieter and then leaps to the ground.
“Hymie, no!” she shouts, stooping to grab his leash before he can run away. She looks up at the German man, also wet. “More coffee?” she asks sarcastically in an automatic reflex–she doesn’t really mean it—she’s just in shock. He stares at her unmoving, purple, as if paralysed. And then it occurs to her to look for the van.
There it is behind her—and in the back seat, the shadowy figure of a woman, waiting. Rosalba bursts out laughing—this is the funniest thing she’s seen in a long, long time.
“Ha hahahahaha—caught you!” she laughs in Dieter’s face. His angry, fearful, ashamed eyes make her feel even funnier, and she whoops, gasps, bends, convulses, squeezing the yowling Hymie, with a freedom she’s never known before. Before he realizes what she’s doing, she runs towards the sliding door of the van, and pops her head in like a bad, bad Lucy Ricardo. The woman is not as young as she is, nor as pretty. They must both be desperate.
“Hey, listen,” Rosalba says to the woman, who looks terrified and guilty all at once. “A couple hours back this guy tried to get me to go to Mexico with him. It’s not like you’re special or anything, in case you were wondering.”
She dances out of Dieter’s way, as he has come up behind her. “See ya!” she shouts “she shouts as she tosses her head and races down the parking lot. She throws Hymie in the back, slams the door, locks it, starts the car. As she scoots off, she sees in the rearview mirror that Dieter is just standing there watching her with the coffee pot in his hands. The woman has exited the van and is standing next to him.
She will not be taken hostage by them—only by their stories, which are now her stories, tributaries running into her life.
So many stories, how many owners?
Then other stories come along and change those stories, just as Dieter had come along and changed Concepción. Now he is a part of it, a coda, a final closing movement, until something or someone else comes along.
He is right. She is a coward. Then she realizes she is grateful to Rugiedo for giving her the power to forgive him. And knowing that she can, she might, maybe tomorrow, maybe never, it’s totally up to her, is enough to begin to fill in what Mendozo took out.
The road snakes out before her like a bright yellow ribbon leading to the land of the sun. Her heart is beating very fast and she opens the window to breathe in big gulps of air.