Excerpted from Part I 1977-1979 I Escape
The first time—which would become legend among them—they entered in darkness. Night enfolded the sand dunes. Stars clamored around a meager slice of moon.
They would find nothing in Cabo Polonio, the cart driver said: no electricity, and no running water. The cart driver lived in a nearby village but made that trip twice a week to supply the little grocery store that served the lighthouse keeper and a few scattered fishermen. There was no road in; you had to know your way. It was lonely out there, he remarked, glancing at them sideways, smiling to bare his remaining teeth, hinting, though he stopped short of asking any questions about what they were doing, why they were traveling to this of all places, just the five of them, without a man, and it was just as well because they wouldn’t have had a decent answer. The trees gradually receded, but clumps of brush still reared their tousled heads from the smooth slopes as if just being born. The horse-drawn cart moved slowly, methodically, creaking with the weight of them, hoofs muffled in the loose sand. They were stunned by the sand dunes, the vast life of them. Each traveler became lost in her own thoughts. Their five-hour bus ride down the highway already seemed a distant memory, dislodged from this place, like a dream from which they’d now awakened. The dunes rippled out around them, a spare landscape, the landscape of another planet, as if in leaving Montevideo they’d also managed to leave Earth, like that rocket that some years ago had taken men to the moon, only they were not men, and this was not the moon, it was something else, they were something else, uncharted by astronomers. The lighthouse rose before them, with its slowly circling light. They approached the cape along a beach, the ocean to their right, shimmering in the dark, in constant conversation with the sand. The cart passed a few small, boxlike huts, fishermen’s huts, black against the black sky. They descended from the cart, paid the driver, and carried their packs stuffed with food and clothes and blankets as they wandered around, staring into the night. The ocean surrounded them on three sides of this cape, this almost-island, a thumb extending off the hand of the known world. At last they found the right place, or the closest thing to it, an abandoned house that could act as windbreak for their camp. It was half-built, with walls only partially constructed and no roof. Four unfinished walls and open sky. Inside, there was plenty of space for them; it would have been an ample house if it hadn’t been left to be eaten by the elements. After they set up their things, they went outside and built a fire. A breeze rose. It cooled their skin as whiskey warmed it, flask moving from hand to hand. Cheese sandwiches and salami for dinner around the campfire. The thrill of lighting the wood, keeping it burning. Laughter spiked their conversation, and when it lulled, the silence had a glow to it, crackled by flames. They were happy. They were not used to being happy. The strange feeling kept them up too late together, giddy with victory and amazement. They had done it. They were out. They had shed the city like a hazardous garment and come to the edge of the world.
Finally they drifted to their blanket piles and slept to the gentle pulse of waves.
But deep in the night, Paz startled awake. The sky glittered. The moon was low, about to set. The ocean filled her ears and she took it as an invitation, impossible to resist. She slid out of her covers and walked down over the rocks, toward the shore. The ocean roared like a hunger, reaching for her feet.
She was the youngest in the group, sixteen years old. She’d lived under the dictatorship since she was twelve. She hadn’t known air could taste like this, so wide, so open. Her body a welcome. Skin awake. The world was more than she had known, even if only for this instant, even if only in this place. She let her lips part and the breeze glided into her mouth, fresh on her tongue, full of stars. How did so much brightness fit in the night sky? How could so much ocean fit inside her? Who was she in this place? Standing on that shore, staring out at the Atlantic, with those women who were not like other women sleeping a few meters away, she felt a sensation so foreign that she almost collapsed under its spell. She felt free.
Flaca was the first to wake up the next morning. She walked to the bare window of the abandoned house and looked out at the landscape around her, so different by day, the great blue ocean visible on all three sides as if they were on a small island, unbound from the rest of Uruguay. Rocks and dry grass, the water beyond, a lighthouse and a smattering of huts in the distance, homes of fishermen and a box of a store somewhere among them. She’d look for it today. She’d go exploring.
Curiosity flared up in her, a rare feeling she’d grown used to suppressing, automatically, without thought. The city, Montevideo, was not a place to be curious, but a place to shrink into yourself and mind your own business, to be careful, to keep your curtains drawn, to keep your mouth shut with strangers because any one of them could report you to the government and then you could disappear, and you could see it in passersby on the street, the flattened gazes, the postures of fear so familiar that they’d become ordinary. She barely noticed, anymore, the constant tightness across her back, which sharpened whenever an army truck lumbered by or a police officer stopped someone in her peripheral vision, then receded back to its low-level presence. Here, now, she became aware of it only as an absence, like the hum of a refrigerator that you only hear when it stops.
To go exploring.
With the others, if they’d come.
She turned to look at them: four sleeping women. Girls. Girlwomen. Was it possible. Were they here. She stared for a long time. Malena lay faceup, mouth slightly agape, eyebrows raised as if her dreams surprised her. About a meter away, Romina curled into herself, like a soldier protecting something— a jewel, a missive—hidden under her shirt. Even asleep, she managed to look tense. Would she ever relax, or would she stay tight as a spring throughout their week here on the beach? There was something comforting about her tension, guilty as this made Flaca feel, considering everything her friend had been through. Romina had always looked out for Flaca, and her vigorous friendship had helped Flaca take risks, take leaps, set out on adventures like this one. Adventures like Anita, who lay just a meter or so away, her luxurious hair pulled into a long, loose braid for sleep. Hair that, if unwound from its braid, fanned out like a lush brown world that could be plunged into, inhaled, a scent to get drunk on. But not now. They weren’t alone. Beyond them, at the outer edge of their small group, lay Paz, a chiquilina, almost a child. Perhaps they shouldn’t have brought her. Perhaps Romina had been right (as she often was). And yet, Flaca hadn’t seen any other choice. When she’d first seen Paz at the butcher shop, she’d seemed so out of her element in the ordinary world that Flaca had felt a stab of recognition. Girls like her had to be saved from themselves. They had to be saved from the horrors of normalcy, the cage of not-being. Which was the cage of this whole country and all the more so for people like them. Paz had reminded Flaca of her own early adolescence. She’d struck up friendly conversation. At first, the girl had shown little outer reaction to the friendliness, answering questions laconically and refusing Flaca’s first invitation to come behind the counter for a round of yerba mate. But even then, her eyes had spoken everything.
Flaca walked beyond the half-built walls to gather kindling for a fire. First order of business: heat the water for yerba mate. That was breakfast. She’d kept just enough water aside last night for a good long round of mate for everyone. They’d have to go find more water later today. As she arranged the kindling in the ring of stones she’d assembled yesterday, she gave thanks, again, to her father for having taught her how to light a fire, all those parrilla Sundays, even though, almost every time, he bemoaned the fact that he had no son to share his skills with. “Three children and no boys,” he’d say, shrugging, “ah well, what can you do about fate?” She, Flaca, was the only one who showed any interest in learning to get the flames going for long enough to turn the logs to embers over which the meat could roast all afternoon. Flames up, embers down and glowing. She wasn’t his ideal student, but still, she knew that some fathers would never teach a daughter, that she was lucky, that she wouldn’t be able to build this fire now if her father had been a lesser man.
Romina stirred just as the water was approaching a boil.
“Good morning,” Flaca said. “How did you know the mate was ready? You have sensors in your brain?”
“Mate antennae. I’m an alien.”
“Of course you are. From Planet Yerba.”
“Sounds like home to me.” Romina squinted out at the ocean. “This place is so damn beautiful.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” Flaca beamed. “How did you sleep?”
“Like a rock. Actually, on the rocks. They probably slept better than I did—the rocks, I mean.”
“Maybe you’ll sleep better tonight.”
“Oh, that’s all right. I’ve slept in worse places.”
That shut them both up for a few moments. Flaca filled the gourd and passed it to Romina, who drank the mate down until the leaves gurgled. Then she passed the gourd back to Flaca, who filled it again and took her turn drinking through the bombilla, the metal straw. The grassy, bitter taste soothed her, woke her mind. This was the first time that Romina had referred to her recent arrest of her own volition, and it was a relief to see the ease in her posture, to hear her make a wry remark about it only two weeks after the fact. Flaca hadn’t known how to broach the subject, trying out the varied approaches of affectionate words, righteous rage, and careful silence since Romina had returned to the land of the living, but no matter what she said or did, she was always met with the same blank eyes. The truth was that, when Romina was arrested, two weeks ago— on the Day of the Dead, no less—Flaca had been terrified. Most people who were arrested didn’t return. There was a neighbor whom she hadn’t seen in years whose daily existence she fought hard not to think about. And there was Romina’s brother, of course, and others—regular customers from the butcher shop, a cousin of her sister’s longtime friend—but none of the other people she knew who’d been taken were as close to her as Romina, who had been her best friend since they first met at a Communist Party meeting in early 1973, when Flaca was seventeen years old and the whole world still felt like a long story waiting to unfurl before her, largely because she didn’t read the newspaper or follow politics, so that even with the occasional evening curfews and the sudden presence of soldiers on the streets, she’d been able to see the world as more or less normal, the country’s problems as possible to fix in the long run. These had been the benefits of not paying attention. In those days she didn’t see politics as having anything to do with her, or with her hopes for the future, which, at that point, involved finding a way to stay alive while also being herself. She’d only gone to the Communist Party meeting out of boredom and because the flyer had been handed to her by a pretty university student with glossy, intoxicating hair, and Flaca had wanted to see her again. The pretty university student was not at the meeting, which was interminable and chaotic, full of passionate monologues from young and old men who took pastries from trays without saying thank you to the women and girls who brought them. Communism, Flaca thought, must not be for me. The best part of the meeting was Romina, one of the enthused purveyors of pastries, eighteen years old. Romina’s hair was not glossy— it was, in fact, just the opposite, a dark riot of curls. Also good to drown in. There was something about her, a kind of billowing intensity to her gaze that made Flaca want to stare at her all night and then some. Toward the end of the meeting, Romina finally had a chance to speak, and she did so with such a passion that Flaca became officially obsessed. She buried that obsession under a mantle of friendship—best friendship, fast friendship, tell-each-other-all friendship—for a month, until finally, one night, they kissed in the bathroom of a nightclub in Ciudad Vieja after dancing with a string of hapless young men. She was stupefied to discover that this could happen, that a girl could kiss her back. It was as good as in her dreaming. Better. The world turned inside out to fit her dreams. Between the world of boy and the world of girl, they’d found a chasm no one spoke of. They fell into it together. They met in their homes when their fathers were at work and their mothers out at a card game or the hair salon, the sex furtive, sharp with the danger of being discovered. On three glorious occasions, they saved up pesos for a cheap motel room where the bored clerks assumed them to be sisters when they checked in and where they never wasted a single hour on sleep. They took delight in each other in absolute secret. Then the coup happened, and Romina disappeared. Her parents disclosed nothing; when Flaca called, they hung up as soon as they heard Romina’s name. Flaca didn’t dare knock on their door. Romina, arrested: her dreams filled with images of Romina’s body twisted or bruised beyond recognition. To distract herself, and to drown out the despair that droned through every waking minute, she took advantage of her after-school work at her parents’ butcher shop to seduce a restless young housewife with acrobatic thighs and a full-lipped librarian who worked at the Biblioteca Nacional and demanded to be spanked with her gold-embossed edition of Dante’s Inferno. It seemed to Flaca that both of them were gripped by a furious erotic charge unleashed by those days of chaos and danger, though neither lover ever referred directly to the coup. She had never seduced a woman who was so much older than her before; the thrill of it helped her survive the terror of her days. She was only seventeen years old but she’d been watching men for a long time, the way they acted as if they knew the answers to questions before they were asked, as if they carried the answers in their mouths and trousers. Her lovers seemed to forget how young she was, perhaps because they wanted to, hungry as they were for distraction and pleasure as the world spun out of control. For the rest of her life, Flaca would wonder whether this period shaped her into a Don Juan, or simply uncovered what was already inside. She would never settle on an answer. When Romina surfaced again—she hadn’t been arrested, she’d been hiding at her aunt’s home in far-flung Tacuarembó, where no one would have thought to look for her, she was in one piece—she quickly discovered these two dalliances, as Flaca made no attempt to lie. Romina exploded. She did not speak to Flaca for a year. Finally, one day, she came to the butcher shop, and Flaca’s heart pounded in her chest. By then, the housewife had shrunk back into her marriage in a panic, while the librarian had expanded her repertoire of ways to mix books with sex. And Flaca had missed Romina every day.
Copyright © 2019 by Carolina De Robertis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.