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Creek Running North

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October 27, 2005

La desaparecida

Her fingers were long and slender, as was she. She bit her lower lip, pulled jammed tape out of the price gun, the counter full of Christmas ornaments before her. That is how I remember her most clearly. I had plant sap up to my elbows. I had been working in the back, preparing boxes of cut flowers for display. Long-stemmed roses I thrust into a machine with spinning rubber fingers, which stripped the lower leaves and sharpest thorns. Carnations were unbundled from their packs of 144 stems, and re-tied in dozens. Stock I smashed at the cut end with the flat side of a hatchet. She handed me a paper towel, smiled.

“1:00. Kathy is out.”
I raised my arm as if looking at a non-existent watch, frowned, held my wrist up to my ear. She laughed.

We ate lunch together every week or so. To ask for more time with her would have been suspect. Her suspicions would have been correct. I had been thinking that she might fit the hole in my life. I was also a hopeless, disheveled minimum-wage worker eating lunch with the daughter of a diplomat. I never told her how I felt. She was warmer than I could have hoped, though that warmth was never demonstrated by anything more forward than a soft hand resting slightly on my forearm. Often enough, we sat together, ate slowly, said little. Afterward, she would suggest the next lunch date.

Her hair was thick and wavy, a black cascade to her waist. Her eyes the color of cinnamon. Nothing escaped them. There were woods behind the nursery, a trail running down to the C&O Canal. For some weeks the red oak leaves were turning, and one bold day I fixed a bright red one in her hair, behind her ear. I could have gazed upon her face for long minutes, and that day I did. She smiled. Her smile was perfect. Still, there was nothing in our friendship to which her father might object, excepting perhaps the fact that I was in it.

A year or two before, democracy had returned to Argentina. The Dirty War ended: the generals who had ousted Isabel Perón stepped aside, submitted grudgingly to civilian control. Sometimes I would look for a wartime sadness in her, gently steer our conversations to politics, talk of my friends working in El Salvador and Nicaragua. She would smile and change the subject. Except once. The Washington Post ran a profile of Jacobo Timerman, recently returned to Argentina to claim his newspaper and to sue the generals for torturing him. I brought her the article. She was briefly impatient. “Mentiras. He is a big liar.” And then smiled sweetly at me and suggested lunch the next day at noon.

I imagined her growing up happy, a sweet dark-haired girl riding horses on vacation in Patagonia, playing with dolls in a whitewashed stucco home covered with bougainvillea. She was my age, and would have been blossoming as the junta consolidated its power. Did she rush to kiss her father on the cheek as he came home, after another long hard day with the Air Force? The right-wing terrorists were directed by the Argentine military. Was there discussion at the dinner table? Tens of thousands of people — labor unionists and leftists and liberals — disappeared without a trace, swallowed up in prisons, killed and gone forever. Kissinger had told the generals “The quicker you succeed, the better.” Congress was about to impose sanctions when he spoke.

Sometimes the death squads would steal liberals’ children, babies offered up to military families for “adoption.” Sometimes the disappeared were loaded into military aircraft, flown out over the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic, and tossed out. Somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people "vanished" — Los Desaparecidos.

In a year of lunches, I’d seen no demons near her surface. She seemed blithe, uncomplicated. I would have liked to have the chance to look a bit further beneath her veneer of privilege. And yet her dismissal of the atrocities chilled me. I began to find lunchtime excuses. If that saddened her, it did not show.

Some months passed. She was leaving. I didn’t ask where. She was saying goodbye to her coworkers, and then it was our turn. I felt sudden regret at having turned my back on her. She took my hand. I looked at my toes.

“How do you say ‘I like you’ in Spanish?”
“Tu me gustas.”
“Tu me gustas.” I took a last long look into those cinnamon eyes.
“Tu me gustas. Tu me gustas mucho, Chris.” She hugged me, spoke into the side of my neck. “I will miss you.” For a long moment she didn’t let go.

And then she did.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 27, 2005 11:10 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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omg, chris. some of the places you have been, things you have seen... and more to the point, things you have then needed to think...

maybe i'm starting to understand the desert, or even barstow.

Posted by: kathy a at October 27, 2005 09:21 PM
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Among many other appreciative things I could say, I'll limit myself to one: Great ending.

Posted by: Dave at October 28, 2005 11:42 AM
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I don't like to comment on stuff that's so perfect because I feel like it's gilding the lily but I'm going to break that rule because I haven't been able to get this story and Doghouse's Sylvia out of my mind since I read them. It's always fascinating to read about people's rationalization for their behavior or the behavior of their loved ones.

On a related topic: I'd like to read about how people like Goldberg, Malkin and Coulter truly rationalize their behavior.

Posted by: eRobin at October 28, 2005 12:47 PM
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While you have turned this incident into very poignant writing. The reality is you really dodged a bullet by not getting involved with this lady.

Posted by: Blixnar at October 29, 2005 06:43 PM
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