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Andre used to say that nobody ought to live far from a city where changes constantly take place, forcing you to react, or rather, live. He considered Brazilian desert towns like my own, Dunas, to have been so frozen in time that even the long dictatorship in Brazil couldn’t shake them. Such towns belonged with the past since they ignored the present, he said. Only modern cities like Buenos Aires offered enough opportunities to build a future.
His city inspired and provided him with the means to produce and direct low-budget films. He was interested in the people who lived on the margins of the high-paced urban life of Buenos Aires. He liked to tell intimate stories about coping with surprising alterations in relationships and circumstances. His characters might have looked common at first, but they became unique and powerful as the film developed, until you came to care about them a great deal.
He dealt with two worlds, the external and the internal. I considered the inner world the sum of the whole.
All of his films touched me and made me feel that people’s spirits transcended the mundane. I especially loved the one about an old man and woman whose son disdained them, and another, about the unemployed sentimental electrician. Unlike Andre, I didn’t care where the characters lived, as long as they had their inner world for me to occupy.
Andre’s characters learned to move the center of their world from their sons, parents, lovers or friends to themselves, so their lives wouldn’t depend on others anymore. But nothing would change my center of the world, I told him. He would always be there.
I met Andre the day I arrived in Buenos Aires, right after taking a bus ride through busy streets of grave colonial buildings and crowded cafes and bookstores. I marveled at the many high heels clacking staccato across parks’ paths and pavements. My sandals were straw-color and flat.
I raised my eyes as he walked into the lobby at a pace all his own. His long, thin coat seemed perfect for him, a stout man with copper-colored long hair, and native Indian traces conflicting with pale skin. He walked by me, then stepped back and gave a gentle, intelligent, blue stare that moved me. We took the stairs together. On the second floor we started talking in two languages that were different but similar, and very soft.
I sent a letter to my parents and stayed with him. He promised he’d travel with me to Brazil to meet my family, but insisted we make our home in Buenos Aires. He was proud of his city, sentimental about its culture and heart. He said it was like Paris or London, but he’d never been in either.
I told him about my town, its one cinema house, one bar-restaurant, one school and one church. The drought kept threatening, but we grew fruit and flowers. Even if we lived in the past, as Andre suggested, it never held us back.
“Dunas needs its people for its survival. It’s a strong connection right here,” I said, pointing at my heart. It’s a part of me as much as I’m a part of it. What kind of roots can I plant in a city?” I asked. But my resentment couldn’t last. Imagine a man who holds his lover all night and tells her both his and her dreams in the morning. I had spoken through my sleep, he said. He wrote stories that made me cry.
He said: “Thank God we’ve found each other.”
Not long after we’d moved in together, Andre introduced me to a young actor who had acted in his first film. Gabriel Gomes was an art student from Northern Argentina. I immediately liked his gentle manner and steel-like sense of justice. He showed me sweet and raw poems filled with conflicted emotions about himself and also about Argentina. Since he identified so much with Andre’s visions and sensitivities, they had become fast friends.
Andre cast him in his other films as well. He was proud of Gabriel, almost paternal, and he brought the boy almost every day to our small apartment in the old building on Corrientes Avenue. To our delight, the public became ecstatic about Gabriel’s fine looks and performance and were touched by Andre’s story.
We adopted him as a son of sorts. Although we were not much older, Andre and I were married, had our own home and shared a sense of peace.
Two years after Andre and I had met for the first time, I found I was pregnant with his child. Andre choked on his tears, but joked with Gabriel, “You’re going to have a brother or a sister.”
Gabriel had a gift for choosing presents. He brought me a diary to write about every pregnant day, or as he put it: to eternalize my pregnancy.
“This book will survive us,” Andre said, an odd prediction.
We were so ecstatic, the two of us, that we felt almost guilty. The iron fists of unemployment, poverty and instability knocked on our door, but we didn’t let them in. We clung to each other.
Finally, thanks to my persistent love and my pregnancy, Andre mellowed a little and stopped considering my hometown a rival. If he had any doubts concerning my staying with him, now he knew that my family or my town couldn’t take me away. He was willing to go to the town of the past and return to the city of the future.
“I’ll take you there,” he said sincerely that time. “We can take the trip as soon as your morning sickness passes, and before the weight of your belly exhausts you.”
I put my arms around him and laughed. Then I cried, of course.
Gabriel assured us he’d take care of our apartment and plants while we were away.
We started checking prices and seeing to our documents, preparing ourselves for the travel, when everything collapsed around us. Waves of violence crushed Argentina. A joint force of officers from the army, navy and air force, the Junta, seized power and decreed a military government. At first, I didn’t expect much to happen, because the Brazilian dictatorship had hardly affected me in what some considered a faraway, irrelevant town. But things went all wrong. People we believed we knew transformed into monsters in the camouflage of uniform. We witnessed little, and understood nothing.
Our neighbor, Javier Nunes, a shy young man, was bitten and released wounded, to be able to scare others. We tucked him into his bed and sang him children’s songs to erase his painful memories.
Dorita Cohen, Andre’s childhood friend, who worked as a teacher at Gabriel’s university, disappeared. Her aging parents moved about the city, from square to square, from police station to police station, from school to school, looking for traces. Her father vomited bloody yellow bits, and the best we could do was offer him tea.
One day, Dorita’s parents appeared at our home. They came especially to tell Andre and Gabriel they must realize that they were in immediate danger, even though they weren’t involved with politics. Their artistic work could strike the military government as leftist, they said, and if so, they would be considered enemies.
“They did nothing wrong,” I said. I was afraid they might do something right like trying to fight the government if the disappearances around us continued.
Dorita’s mother waved her head and said in her smoky voice, “President Videla said that a terrorist is not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilization.”
So now, my Andre, Andre Lubavich, a half Jew, had another reason to be afraid.
“How would rational people defend themselves from danger?” Andre asked, as if it were a drill to answer.
“If Dorita had only known—” her father said.
“The army has trained its soldiers to torture and kill,” her mother said, swallowing hard.
“Do you think we should run away?” I asked.
“If they catch you fleeing you’re as good as guilty,” Andre said.
“But you’re already guilty. Isn’t your name in my daughter’s address book?” Dorita’s mother said. “We know students, teachers, housewives, actors, friends and friends of their friends who have been taken to unknown places.”
“You can’t be condemned only because your name is listed in an address book,” I said.
“I know people who’ll hide me and maybe you too. But how long can you hide? I need to work and study,” Gabriel said.
Andre glanced at me, squeezing his eyes, as if I were going to disappear unless he focused them. “We have to think about it. Maybe you can go to Brazil legally, and I’ll follow one way or another,” he said to me.
“I’m not going anywhere without you,” I replied quickly. I felt for him, the lover of the city. He’d come to realize that my town, immersed in its past, offered a safer future than Buenos Aires.
“Take care of your wife and your baby,” Dorita’s mother told Andre as she and her husband left.
Gabriel hid in his friends’ place by the Tigre River. They were related to a general, and nobody knew they didn’t share his views.
Andre and I considered escaping to a friend’s farm outside the city. We hesitated. The horror was new to us, and we thought it had a limit, logic, some sense. Andre still believed that running away would imply guilt. Besides, our bread, so to speak, comprised a translation agency and three art sponsors in Buenos Aires.
We opted for waiting. Perhaps things would go back to normal, or we could possibly go to Brazil. They let some people out, I heard, but blocked others. We didn’t know their criteria and were afraid to try them.
We planned our baby’s room, in the meantime, visualizing it in light purplish-blue with a white crib and colorful mobiles. I imagined my baby’s first smile, first word. Andre dreamed about helping the baby take his or her first steps. We froze with the slightest noise.
I started vomiting four or five times a day and became too weak to move about. It could have been a normal phase in my pregnancy, or an inflicted state of mind. The idea of running away dissolved.
Gabriel returned to his students’ home. He’d passed two months away, and nobody had looked him up, so he felt safe.
I had a routine checkup the afternoon he returned, so I couldn’t stay, but I told Andre he should wait for Gabriel instead of accompanying me. We were excited to see him again.
The doctor said that I was doing well, and the baby was perfect. I was still celebrating it in my head as I ran into a Brazilian woman whom I’d met and befriended the way immigrants do. She told me that a network of foreign women was manufacturing false papers to help suspects flee the country. She was going to try and get both her and her Argentinean husband those women’s help.
My hope rose but sank immediately. I didn’t even ask her for any contact information. What if she were a spy for the government? Many people turned others in to save their own skin.
I only trusted Andre, Gabriel, and the relatives of our missing friends, those poor parents who couldn’t even help their own sons and daughters.
I brought home merely my happy pregnancy news. Gabriel gave me wildflowers, tusca and churqui, he had picked up for me. As he left, Andre fell asleep with his head on my belly.
I was running out of texts to translate, and had little money to help us get by. Andre’s sponsors canceled the contracts one by one. He worked now at a café where he used to sit during long hours of intellectual discussions with fellow artists. Surprisingly, the café continued crowded as if life went on normally. He worked until late at night, which was fine, because most arrests took place at night.
But they came for him in broad daylight.
They knocked on the door with great force. We had been having lunch, barefoot and in our sweatshirts. We didn’t move at the sound; our eyes locked in shock. Andre took my hand in his, and we waited.
I was certain they came for both of us, a terrible and yet a comforting thought. My tears streamed down uncontrollably. The door gave in, and four armed soldiers entered. One of them cursed as he stumbled on Andre’s shoes.
“Are you Andre Lubavich?” a soldier with a kid’s face asked.
Andre’s lips trembled when he admitted he was.
“Come with us.”
I brought Andre’s socks and shoes, put them on his feet with unsteady hands, then held his knees beside the table.
The soldiers laughed. “He won’t be needing anything where he’s going,” the uglier one said.
“Where are you taking me?” Andre inquired in a low voice.
“Where’s your warrant?” I asked, looking up at a dark soldier’s eyes.
The kid soldier shouted, “Shut up.”
“Don’t…” Andre told me. He directed his gaze at my discreetly curved belly. He didn’t want them to know about our baby. They were the face of evil if there is such a face. “Take care,” he pleaded.
They held his elbows to direct him toward the door. He kept looking back at me, as they led him downstairs. His gray sweatshirt marked him among the uniformed soldiers as if he were a human among robots.
“I’ll get you out,” I cried, running downstairs behind them. They pushed him into the military car and put a blindfold over his eyes. His copper-colored curls were the last I saw of him.
My tears streamed down unstoppable. “He’s innocent! Leave him alone!” I screamed, running after the moving car. “Don’t do it!” I stopped and broke down on the street as the car disappeared down the road. Two or three passersby retreated into the buildings.
Fear is a monster.
I dragged myself upstairs, remembering our reluctance to run away. Why did we trust our luck? God helps those who help themselves.
I pulled at my hair, crawled on the floor, vomited into the toilet; hit my head against the sink. Too weary to cry, I suddenly realized I was wasting time. I needed to get him out of jail. I took a shower, feeling a surge of energy, and dressed up to look presentable.
I couldn’t risk a phone call, but I needed Gabriel’s support. Two heads put together are better than one, as my mother says. I took a bus to his student home, crossed the street as fast as I could, ran upstairs, gathering my strength, and finally arrived at the fourth floor where he lived.
Shards of glass cluttered the floor under a broken window. Quick heartbeats pulsed in my ears. My legs almost buckled under me as I reached his door. A hole with splinters of torn wood around it opened a mouth in the middle of the door. I held my belly and went downstairs, howling inside my head. I threw up into a trash bin.
The idea of calling Gabriel’s parents in Tucuman made me throw up again, but I had to do it.
His mother burst out crying and said they’d take a bus to Buenos Aires.
I also called Andre’s uncle, his closest relative, but he was too shocked or too afraid to attempt more than a few words of consolation. The same reaction repeated itself with old teachers I visited, Andre’s colleagues and sponsors, certain friends of Gabriel or Andre. An influential acquaintance promised to pass on to me any piece of information I could use, but didn’t offer to interfere on Andre’s behalf. I wanted to shout at these people: “You’re robbing me of my future,” but they were lost in a senseless, timeless world.
I accompanied parents and other spouses, all of them overwhelmed, in desperate investigations. They couldn’t even help their own.
Deaf and mute to my questions, officers in detention centers blocked my path. Money passed from my hands to theirs in two police stations, and they promised me they’d make an inquiry. I hoped they’d inform me of the location of the jail, so I could concentrate my efforts. But people were abducted as if they meant nothing to anyone.
Gross or indifferent soldiers checked out lists and informed me that my Andre and Gabriel were not on them. One of them said that I couldn’t ask about anyone who didn’t belong to my family. What did they know about family?
I passed by the Naval Mechanic School once and again. Rumor had it the Junta was holding and torturing people inside.
The soldiers ordered me to leave the way they’d certainly kick away a stray dog. They threatened to arrest me as well, but my anger armored me against threats. The one thing I feared was a world without Andre.
At the same time, my pregnancy was tempting me to nest anywhere, even in jail, with him.
But I knew they were torturing people. Everybody knew it by then, even the people who pretended they didn’t.
One day, a knock on the door woke me up from one of those short periods of sleep after white nights of insomnia. Nobody visited me those days, since seeking the company of a subversive’s wife could incriminate them.
The knocking went on weakly but insistently. I crossed the hall so slowly it felt as if I hadn’t actually moved. Then I thought: soldiers don’t knock that way. I unlocked the door, gathered my breath and opened it.
Gabriel was standing there like a damaged statue of himself. They shaved his head and broke his nose. There were cicatrizes down his neck and new angles in his shoulders.
“Gabriel!” I sobbed. I pulled him in and slammed the door behind him. “Gabriel!”
He hugged me the way children cling to their mothers on their first day at the nursery.
“How are you? Where is Andre?”
“Oh God. All I know is that we were at the same place, in different cells but on the same corridor. We heard each other—I heard him.”
“You heard him,” I repeated, unsure what to make of it.
“I don’t know why they released me. I was hoping they let him go too. Look at you. You look so pregnant,” he said, wiping his eyes.
“What should I do? How can we release him?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Is it a matter of price? We don’t have any time to waste.” My mind was clear and attentive.
“Look. You must go back to Brazil. Do you hear me?” He held my shoulders and looked down at my eyes.
“Tell me what to do. Can I bribe them? I’ll get the money. Is there someone there who’ll hear me? Anyone normal?” I said.
“I heard that they sell babies for adoption.” He placed his scratched hand on my belly, over my flannel shirt. “They told me they’d kill me if I told what I saw and heard.”
My heartbeat quickened. “Are they following you?”
His jaw dropped. Then he said, “I couldn’t avoid coming here.”
“You’re a foreigner so you may be free to go. Listen. They torture pregnant women. Someone told me they electrocuted his pregnant wife everywhere. It’s like your body is exploding. It’s…” He was crying.
“Come to the kitchen,” I said. I made him tea and sat with him at the table.
“I don’t know what we can do for Andre. We can only save you and the baby.”
“What is it like in there?”
“The corridor has a terrible stench and people scream all the time, day and night. They threw me into a room where I couldn’t stand up or stretch my legs. I heard him. It was Andre. They were beating him for hours and hours. You can’t shut up when they beat you.”
A violent convulsion shook me, and I threw up before I could run to the bathroom. “Oh my,” I said weakly.
Gabriel threw the dish towel over the floor, then grabbed my hand. “I’m telling you, you must leave.”
“I can’t. What if he came here like you did and didn’t find me?” I said. I took a sip of water, feeling guilty to have it while Andre was being deprived of anything but dirty water.
“Do you have something to eat?” he asked. “They may come after you and beat you up and electrocute you and keep you in damp cells without a toilet. Are you listening? You don’t seem to be listening. They raped a girl again and again. I heard her scream. You hear so many screams…They won’t give you any medical help. If and when you have your baby, they’ll take it from you.” He was crying again.
It was then that my insides melted and solidified like steel around my baby. “Nobody touches this child,” I said. I stood up, thinking about my baby, and fetched bread and cheese, milk and apples, everything I had.
“I’ll let Andre know where you are if he comes out.”
“Don’t say ‘if.’”
He ate three fat chunks of bread one after the other.
I crossed my arms over my belly, taking in this pained boy, my great friend. In the past, feeding him evoked maternal feelings. Now it provoked the heartbreak you feel in front of a hospital bed.
“You need to be a mother now,” he said. His intonation, his body language, his eyes all seemed to belong to a terminally sick man. He chewed on another piece of bread and drank milk. “Why did they let me go, you think? Nobody knows why they arrest or why they release.”
“I can’t just go away without trying for the last time. The people who hid you, the general’s relatives—they are the best contact we have.”
“A general?” His lips stretched in a lifeless smile. “They enjoy it, torture and abduction and whatever makes a mess out of you.
“Well, they can’t kill him,” I said. “There is a God who takes care of us.” I wasn’t religious. I wasn’t even sure if I believed in God, except now I did.
“Pray to him. I can’t anymore.”
“I can’t let them arrest me and my baby.” The weight of the words bent my shoulders. “Send me news from Andre.” You can’t abandon a child, because children can’t survive by themselves. But can you leave your husband in a horror jail and run away with his child?
“Keep in mind he was alive right across the corridor from me.”
“It’s not like I’m choosing between him and the baby,” I said, although I was.
We held hands over the table. I cried.
I made contact with the Brazilian woman, and through her I entered in touch with the women’s network that manufactured false papers
Gabriel stayed with me, and I cared for him like a mother cares for a son. Then, one day, he went downstairs and didn’t return.
I was sent to a hiding place and soon afterwards, I escaped to Brazil.
I never saw Andre or Gabriel again. In my waking hours, my son, Lucas, is the center of my world.
Avital Gad-Cykman's flash collection Life In, Life Out has been published by Matter Press. Her work has also been published in The Literary Review, CALYX Journal, Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, Prism International, Michigan Quarterly Review and elsewhere. Some works have been featured in anthologies such as Sex for America, Politically Inspired Fiction, Stumbling and Raging, Politically Inspired Fiction Anthology, and W.W. Norton's International Flash Anthology as well as in The Best of Gigantic First Five Years. She is the winner of Margaret Atwood Studies Magazine Prize and placed first in The Hawthorne Citation Short Story Contest, and was a finalist for the Iowa Fiction award for a story collection.