ariations on a Suicide: When I opened the apartment door the light was coming through the window from the side, diagonally, even though it was almost dark. This seemed odd to me. In the early morning, for example, the sunlight that comes from the direction of the river and appears first in the living room warps the furniture’s shadows and stretches them out, like giraffes; and although I don’t usually give that kind of thing much thought, you end up having certain expectations with regard to light and shade at each hour of the day. Now the city’s reflection on the low-hanging clouds gave off a clear, artificial radiance, the orange hue of torrid, stormy nights. So the legs belonging to the body that hung in the middle of the living room threw off an elongated shadow, which crawled along the ground toward the wall and clung to my body, clung to me as I stood there, without fully entering or closing the door.
For many years I had thought about my father’s suicide, about his various possible suicides. I had become so used to the idea that I wondered if the rest of the world carried around the same mental images, imbued with an identical insistence. Sometimes I imagined I was in the courtyard of an indeterminate house, sitting in a hammock or on a sofa. I would hear a shot and run inside to find him, the warrior of the pen and the word, stretched out over a table, his desk. Other times, the image was of a house I walked into after being out all day, and seeing his dead body sitting on the sofa in the living room, sometimes with no visible injury, while other times blood trickled from his temple and seeped into his shirt.
Sometimes he had jumped from the window of an office building in the Tribunales district, overwhelmed by something. Or he had simply not returned home, had vanished without leaving any trace or message, nothing. Or he would kill himself in some way that was not specified, but the center of the dream was one last long, intimate conversation we shared. Although on other occasions, the conversation was intimate but not comforting, and took place while he was drunk or high, cackling and waving a knife gripped in his right hand, his face distorted with fear.
Still other times, the scene of the suicide wasn’t clear either, in fact I couldn’t even see it, but it played out like a personal sacrifice to a higher cause, something indescribable, leaving behind a heroic and onerous legacy. Or else, still unable see the suicide, or the death, or the body, the dream would consist of me receiving a phone call at work from some nameless official, a doctor or a lawyer, who told me something serious had happened to my father, and that I should go immediately to a certain place, a hospital.
Of course, I had also imagined walking into my house and finding his body hanging in the center of the living room.
Now, the deformed shadow of his legs shielded me from the blaze of light streaming in through the window at that hour of the evening. And because I had imagined it so often, everything seemed a little more normal, in its own way. Except for the fact that the man hanging in the living room of my apartment—my father, Comrade Luis Abdela—had been dead for thirty years.
The March: Argentina’s Long March took place during the early months of 1976, and was led by Ricardo Berezán, Tío Ricardo, my own personal Great Helmsman, who came down from Salta on Route 34, something not even General Güemes had been able to do. That summer, Comrade Abdela fled to China for a time to learn the arts of war, and I was left fatherless and entrusted to Salta and my uncle’s safekeeping. My Tío Ricardo and my Tía Quita were waiting for me there, as well as Dora, or Dorita, my cousin who was twenty years older than me; the one who had gone to live in the United States in search of love, land, and property, and had found all those things in abundance in just a few months, or so legend had it, and had returned home for the first time in a long while because she missed her parents. My cousin went around showing everyone her new wedding band, a thick, golden-hued ring that weighed down the fingers of her small hand and was made not of gold but rather of a strange, dark metal, because her husband was someone important in the metallurgy business who lived in a place called Pittsburgh, and who, after he met her, had never wanted to leave her side again; or at least that’s what my aunt said, and my cousin, everyone really. My cousin was petite, the opposite of her mother, and had so much dark, unruly hair that her head seemed disproportionately large compared to the rest of her body.
I moved below her, hidden from the street in the trench that formed between the shop window and her flesh.
Casa Berezán was my uncle’s tailor shop. It was on Belgrano and Dean Funes, opposite the drugstore. Every morning before opening, Quita cleaned the windows with ammonia and newspaper, and during those two weeks of vacation I helped her by scrubbing the lower edges with enough force to make the paper squeak on the damp glass. Quita was the largest woman I had ever met, not just the tallest but also the most corpulent, the widest human being I had ever seen close up. Her thick fingers would grasp the bundle of damp newspaper and her long, wide arms would effortlessly reach every corner of the window, even the ones I could barely see. I moved below her, hidden from the street in the trench that formed between the shop window and her flesh.
When the sun rose after nine o’clock in the morning, the reflection from Casa Berezán’s windows stretched over the whole block, and the dust suspended in the street air could be seen in each of its particles. The rest of the block—the Belgrano drugstore, the home of a notary public friend of my uncle, the underwear store, the newspaper kiosk, the facades of the houses, everything—seemed to lie under an opaque mantle set off by the incandescent sparkle of the windows of Casa Berezán. Behind the glass, brown and gray suits were mounted on three beige plastic mannequins with horizontal slashes on their faces for eyes, and on the six shelves that covered the walls on either side lay the rest of the attire destined to clothe the city of Salta: brown, gray, and blue socks, shirts with long and short sleeves, undershirts, hats, ties, belts, several brushes with lacquered wooden handles and bristles soft as cotton, and a few V-neck sweaters speckled with some of the dust that made its way into the shop and settled on the lowest shelves by the end of the day. Inside, Tío Ricardo made bespoke suits.
Ricardo and Quita had decided to make the return trip to Buenos Aires with me. “Your uncle has to bring something there,” was the only explanation they had given me. The last afternoon before we returned to Buenos Aires, a man came into the shop while we were getting ready to close. It was the end of March, definitely after the 20th, and during those days work was starting to slow down. Only the arrival of April’s paychecks would see people once again sitting in the cafes on the square at midday on Saturdays. If it had been a few weeks later, my uncle would not have begun a job just before closing.
The man was around fifty, wearing a blue suit that was almost new and perhaps a size larger than necessary for his skinny neck. From behind the counter, my uncle caught sight of him standing in the middle of the shop. He squinted his eyes while looking at the man, making God only knows what mental calculations and measurements.
“It’s for going out, not for work,” the client explained.
My uncle responded in monosyllables, engrossed in his work.
“I’d like it to be quite tight-fitting.”
I watched from the door, trying to make myself invisible. My uncle had left the client on one side, and was now standing in front of an old wooden platform with a piece of chalk, sketching freehand on some light-colored cloth. Afterward would come the measurements and questions for the client and the apprentice’s work. I had already seen all this in my time there. But at the beginning, it was a moment of inspiration during which Ricardo set out in broad outlines the foundation for his work.
I accompanied the client to the door while my uncle finished gathering our things. After lowering the shutter, my uncle grabbed me by the hand and we headed toward Zuviría. He stroked my head, tousling my hair and extracting a speck of non-existent dust from it, and then he smiled. “Now let’s go home, get our stuff together, eat something with your aunt, and then off to Buenos Aires.”
We took a taxi to the microbus station. I sat in the back, between my Tío Ricardo and my cousin Dora, or Dorita. My Tía Quita rode up front, clutching a large package wrapped in various sheets of brown paper and tied up with twine between her legs.
“What’s that?” I asked, my curiosity piqued by the zeal with which Quita gripped the package between her thick calves. Dora, or Dorita, raised her eyes and pursed her lips before sighing in the direction of her father. “His stuff.”
“Ah, now that…” my uncle replied, ignoring his daughter. “That’s a press. And we’re taking it to Buenos Aires, so now you’ll be able to use it as well. It’s very, very heavy.”
“What’s a press?”
“A printing press. It’s used for binding things. You’ll see. Books, magazines, everything.”
His daughter sighed again. After a few seconds of silence my aunt, whose face I couldn’t see, said: “You’ll have a lot of fun with the press, Rubencito. Your uncle will show you how to work it and you’ll be able to bind anything you want.” Without turning around, Tía Quita stretched her arm back alongside the taxi door, reached my uncle’s leg at knee height and gave him three little pats, leaving her hand resting on her husband’s pant leg.
“And why are you taking it to Buenos Aires?” I asked, trying to tear my eyes away from my aunt’s hand.
“Because we’re in the process of moving everything, Rubencito, because we’re going to live there.”
Ricardo had been the first and only member of the family to subscribe to Selecciones de Reader’s Digest en Español. Each time he traveled from Salta to Buenos Aires he brought several issues with him to share among my uncles and other relatives, on the condition that they were returned to him before he headed back. The rest of the family awaited Ricardo’s visits obsessed with the idea of devouring the issues of Selecciones he would bring in his suitcase. My grandfather leafed through them on the sofa of his doctor’s office with the complete works of Juan B. Justo, Ingenieros, Echeverría, Sarmiento, and others I couldn’t identify because they were on the highest shelves, watching over him. He never spent more than ten minutes looking at the articles and he returned the magazines to my uncle with an affectionate “Thank you,” but without comment. The rest of my uncles, on the other hand, took them for several days and came back excited, filled with questions and criticisms and ideas about the reports on vaccination campaigns in Peru, the boom of a certain musical style in Central America, or the brief biography of a Mexican president.
For my Tío Ricardo, the most important thing was to return to Salta with the magazines in good condition. In the living room of his house, next to the lacquered wood cabinet that the city dust never stuck to, I had seen the fruits of his labor: groups of various issues of Selecciones dutifully bound into one solid book, with a glued-on cloth spine that allowed you to open it completely without the pages separating.
It took us ten minutes to get to the bus station. The taxi driver circled the Plaza San Martín in order to drop us off closer, but the car door got stuck against the curb, so my uncle and I got out on the street side. “Here,” he said, handing a tip to the kid who opened the door for us and offered to carry some of our bags. It was about fifty meters to the spot under the high roofs where the micros were idling their engines. We walked in silence. Near the entrance a man sat on the sidewalk, surrounded by Styrofoam coolers that had bottles of orange juice and dark brown sachets of chocolate milk sticking out of them.
“Not that one. He’s from Paraguay,” Ricardo said in a loud voice when he saw me standing there.
“Here, this guy,” he added quickly, gesturing at another man, a little younger than the first but also with indigenous features, who sat three meters further on. “He’s Bolivian.” The two men glanced at one another, and I boarded the micro with a sachet of La Vascongada milk.
We left when it was still daylight and all the passengers opened the windows and closed the curtains at the same time. We were traveling in the rear of the micro, and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the wind rattling the curtains up front. I woke up a good while later, when I could no longer hear the engine and some of the passengers started to get up. We had stopped in front of the only structure in sight, and two other micros were parked beside ours under a corrugated iron roof, held up by two thick white walls that seemed to simmer in the night. Estación Güemes was painted on one of the walls in black.
Almost nine hours later, and with me still wide awake, the micro reached the terminal of Santiago del Estero.
I couldn’t get back to sleep. We passed by another, similar shelter, and then a police roadblock that lit up the highway in the middle of nowhere, and where the micro was stopped for twenty minutes. A couple of young guys in gray uniforms, who were about the age of my cousin Dora, or Dorita, boarded the micro and talked to someone in the seats up front, then they got off the bus and opened the roadblock so we could pass through. Almost nine hours later, and with me still wide awake, the micro reached the terminal of Santiago del Estero. I ran my fingers through my hair and rubbed my eyes as my aunt and uncle stood up and began walking down the aisle toward the exit. From up in the micro I could see my cousin already standing on the platform, the station’s yellow lights casting a sepia reflection over her dark hair.
“Wow,” I heard her say. “Compared to this, the Salta station is Frankfurt am Main.” She had spent six years living abroad, and this lent her phrase a certain weight, above and beyond the fact that I didn’t have the remotest idea what Frankfurt was. As she spoke, she wiped her forehead with a handkerchief and then examined the blackish liquid she had just removed. My Tío Ricardo, who was still up in the micro, watched her standing there in her little suit of synthetic fabric, dissolving in the heat. He waited until his wife had reached the ground and then he descended the stairs to the platform without even touching the railing, the Casa Berezán suit neatly folded over one arm and his gaze fixed on the overhead compartment where the press was traveling.
“C’mon, let’s go have a café con leche. It’ll do you good,” he said, steering me by the head, without looking at his daughter.
“How much longer to go?”
“Fifteen hours. That’s all.”
If memory serves, the only thing I recall after those fifteen hours is Luis Abdela’s muffled voice crackling down the phone line at my grandmother’s house, just after I had arrived there from Retiro station.
“Pa, Pa, I just got back from Salta. Are you back from China?”
“I’ll be back soon.”
“What did you get me?”
“What did I get you? This. Can you see it through the phone from there?”
“No, Papi. What is it?”
“It’s a Chinaviator.”
“What’s a Chinaviator, Papi?”
“A Chinaviator is a brave Chinese pilot, like your racing car driver, like you.”
“When are you coming back? My aunt and uncle have come to live in Buenos Aires, because in Salta they were alone and old. When are you coming back?”
“Soon now, very soon, hush.”
“Yes, that’s right. Soon.”
“But when’s soon?”
“As soon as I can, I promise.”
“And you’ll bring me the Chinaviator?”
“Yes, of course. Why do you think I’m hurrying back?”
“Papi, are you in China?”
“Right now I am, yes.”
“Don’t you want us to come over there? I could come with Mami and Augustín. Mami says there was a coup here.”
“No, no Rubencito. Be patient, I’m coming home soon.”
“But Mami says if you come back they’ll kill us all. I don’t want them to kill us, Papi. I want to go to China.”
The Truth: A sincere reverence for lying was one of the first things I learned as a kid. My grandmother was taking slices of toast from the toaster and spreading them with Cansancrem cream cheese, using a tiny knife with a black handle. I had come home after class with one sleeve of my school smock destroyed and my arm covered in scratches, after Di Nápoli had first dragged me along the sidewalk and then across the street, going over the curb and through the gutter, and then through the gutter and up over the other curb, finally pulling me onto the opposite sidewalk, while kicking the shit out of me the whole way. My grandmother, who knew that usually a café con leche with toast could be more soothing than ice on a swollen cheek, used to pile on like geological layers the lessons she felt were a necessary part of the good education that would shape her grandchildren’s futures.
“So why did he hit you?”
“Because I told him he was fat like his mamá and that he couldn’t even run for the bus, not him or his mother or his brothers.”
“And why did you say all that?”
“Just because. And because anyway it’s true, Grandma, and you—”
“‘And you’ nothing. Don’t you drag me into this.” She directed the conversation the same way she did the toast and coffee, with a military bearing. “‘Anyway it’s true.’ So you insulted him and his whole family ‘because it’s true’? And what does the truth have to do with any of this, pray tell?”
“Well, you always say…”
“So you think you should run around throwing the truth in the face of everyone you pass by in the street?”
“Um, no. Who taught you that?”
“No, you should say things to people to make them feel better, or so that they have a good time, or to make friends. Nobody cares if they’re true or not. ‘I said it because it was true.’” She put on a high-pitched voice and pursed her lips to exaggerate the pronunciation, imitating and ridiculing me at the same time, and laying down terms for the total surrender that precedes accepting the authority of your elders.
“But Bubby, doesn’t everyone tell the truth? That’s what you told me.”
“Who taught you such foolishness? The truth! Stop kidding around. The truth is for fascists.”
“Who are the fascists?”
“The fascists are the ones who took your papá.”
Taxi Driver: Spying on the neighbors in a living room in the building opposite ours, just a few meters away from our bedroom, I could see two people with a desk in between them, talking.
His face, lit from in front by the same lamp, was a white map upon which the protuberances of his nose and mouth, and the sockets of his eyes, stood out.
When I remember this now, I’m amazed at how natural it seemed to see my father there in front of me, a blue polo shirt hanging limply yet neatly from his skinny body, gray linen pants that were perfectly pressed, and his bare feet propped up on an ottoman of faux burgundy leather. He was sitting in a roomy armchair with a floor lamp behind him, so from where I was I could see his face lit from above and his features lost in the shadows, the lamp’s reflection on his glasses when he tilted his head back, and his dishevelled hair. On the other side of the desk was another man, who stood with a notepad in one hand. Standing upright and from a distance, he seemed much older than my father; his sparse hair was combed to one side and his face, lit from in front by the same lamp, was a white map upon which the protuberances of his nose and mouth, and the sockets of his eyes, stood out. From there, he gazed steadily down at my father, as if scrutinizing him or trying to figure out if there was something going on below the surface. Luis Abdela and Capitán were the only people visible in that room and, what’s more, they were all that could be heard. Capitán took a ballpoint pen from his pocket, made a note of something on the page in front of him, and then looked at Abdela again.
“Luis Abdela, Luis Eduardo Abdela: Sir, where were you on March 24, 1976?”
“March 24th, Abdela. Don’t tell me you don’t remember. What were you doing that day?”
“I was watching Taxi Driver.”
“Driver. Taxi Driver. The movie.”
“I don’t know it.” Capitán lowered his pen and then raised it again several times, unable to decide whether to make a note of this. The two of them remained silent for a few seconds.
“It’s an American movie, it doesn’t matter. With Robert De Niro.”
Capitán nodded his head and went back to writing something on his notepad. Once again, the same discomfort he had felt the first time he saw Abdela descended upon him, it was an unbridgeable gap, an external authority that was insurmountable to them both and had not yielded even when confronted with proof of his power.
“So you saw a movie, OK. And what else?”
“What do you mean what else?” Abdela took his feet off the ottoman and sat up straight in the armchair. “We went to see Taxi Driver because it had just come out that week. And afterwards we went for a walk…”
“Who were you with?”
“With a friend. We went for a walk along the Seine. For hours, I remember that, walking for hours and hours.”
“I’m sorry, you went for a walk along the Seine? You were in Paris?”
“Sí señor, in Paris, walking along the Seine, like I told you. And then down the Boulevard Saint-Germain, if you need more details. I like movies, a lot. Seeing those guys on the big screen, larger than in real life, is something that still cheers me up. Casablanca, or whatever, the stuff of conventional tastes. Anyway, that day we wanted to see something but it turned out all the movies were in French, and neither of us spoke French. Then all of a sudden we noticed Taxi Driver was playing in the original. ‘Let’s go to this one,’ I say to him. ‘Do you speak English?’ ‘Nope, not a word.’ ‘So…?’ And we didn’t understand a thing, but you get the impression that yes, you’re going to understand. In any case, movies can be understood that way. Not like books.”
“And what did you do afterwards?” Capitán’s voice tried to demonstrate an indifference he didn’t feel, a haste he didn’t feel, dodging his own questions.
“Afterwards we went for a walk, like I said. We had come from a meeting and we were hungry.”
“What do you mean from a meeting? What kind of meeting?”
“A meeting, to show solidarity with Chile.”
“Which meeting? Who was holding it?
“Look, there’s something about that era you need to make a mental note of—for about ten years, any European capital worth its salt had to hold an event a few times a week to show solidarity with Chile. Never less than once a week. And there was always a good amount of socialists there.”
“Who was there? Were there other Argentineans?”
“Everyone was there. A Chile solidarity event wasn’t an invitation you turned down. How many people would go to an event for the Paraguayans? If it was for Argentina, or any other country, a few people would go, but for Chile there was no comparison. Everyone was there.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Hah, I saw that one coming from a mile off. Let me explain: at that time I was as disgusted by the Chileans as I was by the French, and both of them disgusted me as much as any socialist, you know what I mean?”
“I was on my way back from China, Capitán, I had just shaken hands with Mao. Eight hundred million people dying of hunger in the name of communism, a guy capable of permanently transforming his country in just half a century, the whole history of this world changed for once and for all, and you think I’m going to get excited over a reformist who committed suicide when three planes came for him out of nowhere, and the entourage of pussies commemorating him in Saint-Germain? We didn’t need get-togethers on the rive gauche from the French. What we needed were passports, weapons, a plan to return.” Abdela took a breath.
“But the receptions held by the French socialist party had the best catering in Europe, with that there was no comparison. We had come from China, where there was nothing—you have to consider what China was like back then. I could have seen Mao and God in the same day, but in Paris I didn’t have a peso to my name, so we wandered from reception to reception, and we saluted Allende, the Tupamaros, Arbenz, Sandino, whoever. So we were there, at the event—in solidarity, let’s say—and there were these tables full of shrimp, salads, baguettes, cheese, grapes. Now, imagine yourself back then, but forget about China and the famine and everything. Any of those things would have been a luxury, in Buenos Aires or in Paris. Any of them. Listen, how many times had you eaten strawberries?”
“How many times in your life, up until then, had you eaten strawberries?”
Capitán thought about the question for a few seconds, and then spent another two seconds searching for an answer. He felt like a student in front of the examiner’s desk.
“Never, I don’t think?”
“Exactly. Strawberries. Today, they’re the commonest thing around, right? If you were in the city right now and you went to a radical party meeting, they’d serve you strawberries for dessert. But back then, I dunno, not even on the tables of the rich. And it was the same with shrimp, I don’t think I’d even tasted shrimp before going to Paris, so after a bit of solidarity we grabbed a couple of cocktail plates and piled them high with shrimp, dip, cheese, we hid hunks of baguette in our overcoat pockets, and we left. That’s when we got the idea to go to the movies, and we ended up watching Taxi Driver while filling our bellies like a couple of swells.”
“And what did you do after that?” Capitán was trying to regain his composure, and the direction of the conversation.
“Afterwards we went for a walk, and then for a glass of wine at a nearby bar. And even though it was a dive, I felt like I was on top of the world drinking wine in that little bistro on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. I was Sartre and Camus. I haven’t the slightest idea what the place was called, but what I do remember is the smell of sadness it left on me. I reckon you could drop me in any spot in Paris today and I’d be able to find that bar by its smell. The only thing I was thinking in that moment was: ‘I’m not going to be able to go back, I’m not going to be able to go back, I’m not going to be able to go back, I’m not going to be able to go back.’”
Capitán had relaxed a little and now he examined Abdela from his vantage point, chewing on his bottom lip.
“So what you’re telling me is that on March 24, 1976, you were in Paris watching Taxi Driver.”
And Abdela, after sighing, said: “That’s right.”
“And while you were in Paris after seeing Taxi Driver the only thing you were thinking about was how to get back home.”
“Exactly. Like I told you.”
“So, in other words, that was the day you forged your destiny?”
“In a way, yes.”
“You were there, in Paris, and you could have stayed there eating shrimp, you know exactly what’s going on in Argentina, and instead of deciding which movie to go to next, what you do is you set in motion your plan to return.”
“When you put it like that it sounds more organized than it actually was. I was on my way back from China, I had stopped in Paris for a few days, and the coup happened while we were there, yes.”
“So why were you in such a hurry to get back? I don’t know if I’m making myself clear here, but people were trying to get out, not come back. Why were you so desperate to return?”
“For the motherland. Or for the party, for my family, because I missed the boys, how the hell do I know!”
Capitán put his pen down on the notepad and slid his glasses to the end of his nose, peering at Abdela over the top of the frames.
“Excuse me for putting it like this, Abdela, but if we hadn’t arrested you for being a leftist, we’d have had to pick you up for being a dumbass.”
They fell silent. It was the first time Capitan had called him “dumbass” or anything like that, Abdela realized immediately. He said to himself, “That’s the first time Capitán has been disrespectful to me,” and then he was left perplexed by his own assertion.
It was the only illuminated room in an entire building plonked down in the middle of a beach with a dead ocean.
Why had Capitan always addressed him with the formal usted? He felt a mixture of disgust and confusion, and another mixture of pleasure and confusion. There were some distances between him and Capitán that not only had nothing to do with their positions of tortured and torturer, but were distances that even the final act of torture had not eliminated. His look softened, he swallowed saliva, his Adam’s apple marked the internal passage of the liquid.
“Please take that chair and sit down.”
The light from the lamp in the room now fell on both of them from above, the shadow outlining Abdela’s features and the bright light plastering Capitán’s face against the back of the chair. It was the only illuminated room in an entire building plonked down in the middle of a beach with a dead ocean.
“What is it that seems so terrible to you, so dumbass?
“Maybe I shouldn’t have put it like that, but you know what I’m trying to say. You had the opportunity to save yourself. There were so many others who didn’t have that chance, but you didn’t even have to do anything to save yourself. You know what I mean? It’s one thing to see it coming, and quite another to go looking for it.”
That’s what Rosa and the boys say, Abdela thought of adding.
“It’s funny that you’re the one asking me why; I always thought that’s what I’d be asking you.”
“We had no choice. It was a war, and we were soldiers. What else would you have had us do?”
“That’s a despicable thing to say. An easy solution would have been not dedicating four years of your life to being part of a paramilitary ‘task force.’” Abdela sat in silence for a few seconds, wondering which mental vault the word “despicable” had surfaced from. “And as if it’s not enough that you haven’t come to terms with the consequences of your actions, now you want me to take responsibility for your guilt, and resolve your life retroactively by reconstructing my own. Despicable.”
“You can say what you like, Abdela, but at least admit your case is different. You were outside the country. If you had stayed in Paris watching movies, none of this would have happened to you.”