Nelda didn’t know of anyone else turning thirty who’d never kissed a man. Her sister Maria said women who never made out with anyone were prone to a nervous condition in their old age. To save Nelda from this fate, Maria had begun scouring the personal ads each Sunday in La Estrella to find someone for Nelda to date. It was 1979, six years into the Pinochet dictatorship, and Maria assured Nelda that the newspapers reported nothing but good news now. Nothing was going wrong in the country anymore. It was an ideal time to find someone through the paper.
Twice in the night she woke up and reread the letter again and then a third time in the morning before sending it . . .
Look at this one, Maria said at breakfast, he likes sunsets just like you do.
Everyone likes sunsets, Nelda said and skimmed the rest of the ads. Javier, Quiet man looking for a thoughtful woman. Interested in a meaningful correspondence. It was a dignified description at least, and she liked the name Javier.
That one doesn’t list his age, her sister said. And who wants quiet?
I like quiet.
So write to him. Maria uncapped the new pen they’d been saving for this occasion. I’ll get you started.
I can start it myself, Nelda said, but then had no idea how to address him. Querido Javier? That seemed too affectionate for a letter to stranger, and Estimado was so formal. An hour later, Maria got bored and left and Nelda settled on the following:
April 5th, 1979
My name is Nelda Soto. I am 1.51 meters tall and twenty-nine years old and would like to meet a man around my age. I hope to hear from you and wish you a Happy Easter.
She particularly liked the line about Easter. It was coming up that weekend, and Javier had said he wanted somebody thoughtful. He hadn’t said anything in the ad about how attractive he was, so it didn’t seem necessary to tell him about her eczema problem. As for her height, her neighbor Carola said that men who placed ads were often on the short side. Being rather petite, she thought it could only help to mention it.
Twice in the night she woke up and reread the letter again and then a third time in the morning before sending it on her way to the Saavedras where she worked as a maid, and where she received the wailing, youngest son Vicente before she’d even put down her bag. She hadn’t taken to this last boy as she had to the older Saavedra children, but today she felt so full of promise she kept Vicente in her arms all morning. She had just sent a letter. To a man who might want to meet her. The greatness of the possibility felt like an apple inside her, round and shiny every time she thought of it.
When an envelope arrived two weeks later with her name handwritten on the front, her hands started to shake. So she wouldn’t tear the letter, she had to ask Maria to open it. The return address was from Quintero, a small town up the coast, and the letter inside, unlike her own, had no mention of height or age. All it really contained were questions, one about Nelda’s taste in music, another about her favorite flower, and then two mysterious lines in cursive at the bottom:
I want to write, but I produce only foam,
I want to say so much, and get stuck.
How weird, Maria said.
They’re lyrics, Nelda said, you know, a little piece of a song. She snatched the letter back and slipped out the back door to read it again, alone. Who cared if the lyrics made any sense—Javier had taken the time to choose them with her in mind. Wasn’t that what romance was supposed to be like, little things that weren’t necessary and didn’t even have to make sense but made you feel chosen and cared for?
Maria didn’t see why Nelda didn’t just ask Javier for his age already, or what he did for a living. And why was it taking so long to actually meet?
Still, over the next few days, she turned on the radio every chance she could and listened for a singer named Vallejo. From the mysterious feel of the lyrics, she suspected Vallejo might be a leftist but she looked through the Saavedras’ cassettes anyhow. As a rule, she disliked the Left as much as the Saavedras did. Her previous family had been socialist and the mother had walked around in her underwear, which Nelda had found unbearable. She also couldn’t stand how loudly the family had debated the news every day over lunch. The Saavedras spoke quietly at the table about pleasant things, what color to paint the patio, or who was coming for lunch after church on Sunday.
As for C. Vallejo, she hoped Javier would explain in his next letter, if there was one. And there was, even sooner this time, with more quirky questions and another snippet from C. Vallejo:
It’s the fourteenth of July.
Five o’clock in the afternoon. It rains
Over the third corner of a dry page
And it rains more from below than above.
But how could it rain from below? Something about that made her sad. Maria didn’t see why Nelda didn’t just ask Javier for his age already, or what he did for a living. And why was it taking so long to actually meet?
Nelda didn’t want to push things. She did know, however, which table at Sausalito Café she wanted to propose for their first encounter: the small round one tucked between the windows and the dessert display. Her eczema was less noticeable in natural light, and if they had any awkward pauses, they could comment on the desserts, or the colectivos passing outside. At Maria’s urging, she brought up the idea of Sausalito’s in her next letter, her third to Javier, and dropped it in a mailbox before she could regret it.
When his reply arrived two weeks later, she opened it in her coat on the porch. She had to skim the letter three times before her mind would let the words in: “. . . we non-violent offenders roam free in the courtyards on Sundays. It would be best to meet in the second yard. . . my apologies. . . maybe I should’ve explained sooner. The address you’ve been sending the letters to is my sister’s. She’s been bringing them to me here. . . the prison in Quintero. I’m sorry. But, bueno. . . all I can say is I’d be very pleased to meet you. . . .”
Every inch of her skin felt hot and itchy and red. What sort of a woman would help her brother deceive a stranger this way? And why had she let Maria mislead her this way?
She put her hands to her cheeks to cool her skin. He said he was a non-violent offender, at least. Maybe he hadn’t even meant to commit a crime, but had just been foolish like her cousin Gustavo, who’d gotten arrested riding around with friends in a car he hadn’t known was stolen.
If she went to see Javier, just once, she could tell him how thoughtless he and his sister were to do this to her. She wouldn’t have to tell Maria where in Quintero she was going. She’d just say that Javier had an injury, to his back, perhaps. Maria’s boyfriend had thrown his back out a few years ago—and it would also explain why Javier hadn’t proposed to meet sooner.
Maria said Javier should be a man and take a couple Tylenol and get on the bus and come to them. But on the morning of the proposed meeting, Maria hurried around looking for a green scarf she thought would be perfect to cover the large splotch of eczema on her sister’s neck and insisted on loaning Nelda her best earrings with the dangling lapis lazuli stones.
You look so pretty he’s going to propose on the spot, Maria said as she ushered Nelda out the door. Across the street, their neighbor Carola had the curtains held back, observing Nelda heading out so early on a Sunday with a scarf and high heels but Nelda didn’t care. It felt good to have a secret. She felt such a rush of excitement stepping onto the bus it was as if she were already in love.
And the ride to Quintero was wonderful. As they moved along the coastline, the ocean was a soft, cottony blue in the early sun. Nobody on the bus was arguing or trying to sell anything. In fact, hardly anybody moved until the driver stopped at a dusty road and shouted Carcél! Suddenly, the bus came alive with the sound of crumpling bags, closing coats. Men pushing to get out first and women straightening their hair. Outside there was already a long line of visitors before the security desk. Nelda had assumed there would be soldiers but it looked like they were body-searching everyone like criminals. Even the women were getting patted down by female guards as roughly as the men.
Adelante, one of the female guards said, and before Nelda could protest the woman’s hands were moving brusquely up and down her sides like she was an animal at the butcher’s.
Which prisoner are you here to see, señora?
What if Javier had done something terrible?
Nelda stared back at the guard, everything rattling in her like a stack of plates. She was here to see a prisoner. It sounded so awful. And suspicious. What if Javier had done something terrible? Maybe he’d lied about being a nonviolent offender. Maybe he was a murderer or had done something against the government and they’d want to question her, or keep her here. Not even Maria knew where she was.
Señora, who are you here to see?
Nelda opened her mouth and for a second thought she would say no one, that in fact she had made a mistake and was going to leave. But she was so curious. There had been so many letters. So many pieces of songs.
She looked down at the ground. Javier, she said, Javier Ramirez. He’s with the nonviolent offenders.
Are you a relative?
No, I’m just. . . Nelda felt her face prickling, the splotches of eczema along her neck getting hot under her scarf. I’m just a. . . friend of his sister’s.
Over there, the guard pointed to a second line of people waiting at a desk, a shorter line where she had to say Javier’s name again and repeat the lie about his sister, both of which came easier the second time. And then the interrogation was over, she was inside—walking down a narrow walkway between two walls of barbed-wire fencing. On each side, prisoners from the first courtyard were shouting and rattling the fencing: Aqui, guapita!
The compliments came so fast and loud she could barely breathe and started to laugh. It was so overwhelming she was still feeling the euphoria of it as she entered the next courtyard. The guards there didn’t even get up when she came in and said nothing when an older, hunched man came right up to her and touched her arm.
Yes. He reached for her hand and she let him take it. He was her father’s age and his glasses were crooked and held together with a piece of tape, but he had a handsome face still, and a long elegant nose.
And I will die in Paris in the rain, Javier murmured so close to her ear she shivered.
I hope you didn’t get tired of getting so many lines from the same poet, he said. I translated some of his work into French, just selections, of course—
Into French. . . Nelda repeated.
Did I send you ‘White Stone Lying on a Black Stone?’ he asked.
I. . . I don’t know. She stepped back, away from him. He’d never said in his letters that he was so educated. She wondered what he thought of her spelling, of her questions. She felt heaviness in her legs.
But you liked the poems, I hope? I never meant to mislead you, Nelda. I thought you would’ve suspected from the ad, the way I’d said I was looking for a correspondence, for just correspondence. You have to understand the last time I was outside of here libraries were burning and everyone I knew was looting.
Oh, only whisky, a little chocolate. He laughed and she clutched her purse. She’d heard about men who’d looted kilos of sugar, but it had been to resell it and feed their families. The lines for food had been terrible in the weeks before the coup, but she and Maria had waited in line with everyone else.
She could see smell his breath, which didn’t smell right. It smelled like old peppers. And there was a yellow infected-looking scab on the inside of his ear.
I think I better go, she said.
But you’ve just arrived! Javier stepped closer to her, so close she could see smell his breath, which didn’t smell right. It smelled like old peppers. And there was a yellow infected-looking scab on the inside of his ear.
Please don’t go yet, honestly, Nelda, I thought you understood, he said, I thought whoever corresponded with me would understand that I meant just a meaningful exchange, but then you wrote, and your letter was—I couldn’t. . . .
My letter was what?
Well, it was just so . . . Javier let his head drop. I knew, or I sensed—
You sensed what? She pulled her purse in closer, her mind filling with possible answers, that she had no education, knew next to nothing about universities or poetry. Or men.
A kindness, he said at last. I sensed you were patient.
She lowered her eyes. Maybe I can come back another Sunday, she said.
I’d like that very much, he said and before she had to look at the dirty Scotch tape holding his glasses together again, she turned to go. She could feel Javier watching her back and thought he might call to her one more time to stay longer, to plead with her just a bit more. She walked a little faster, thinking maybe he was waiting to say it until she reached the archway. Then just before it she slowed again, bracing for the sound of her name.