May 20 ● BY Lena Crown
The kitchen huddled to the right of the door, too narrow to be called a room and too short to be called a hallway. I noticed, with a nervous gulp, that everything was white. White cupboards, white mottled granite countertops, white appliances, white pots and pans and colanders and casserole dishes gleaming from their perch above the stove. My house in California was a mishmash of oak and mahogany and homemade coasters and abandoned shoes; my dorm room in St. Louis was a collage of wall tapestries and old records and dirty laundry.
Against such a sterile backdrop, the family photos plastering the fridge in Apartment 10C struck me as a disconcerting attempt at homeyness. I skimmed the patchwork of prints—there was a picture of a young and eager María Luz, her husband Mario, and their three children piled on the same pristine white couch that sat in the living room to my left. The photographs’ slapdash arrangement and dog-eared corners provided a small comfort.
Everything in the apartment was elegant but diminutive—the petite chairs at the breakfast table, the stately but squat coffee table in the living room, the slender hallway leading from the kitchen to the bedrooms, the closet-sized bathrooms with their miniature toilets and shallow sinks. Even the doorman, Oscar, was shrunken and gaunt, tiny enough for me to gaze down at his grey comb-over. Chain-smoking all day on the sidewalk had ravaged his vocal cords. Every time I approached the building, he sprang like a grasshopper to the heavy front door, acknowledging my arrival with a decorous nod—or as decorous as he could muster with a Marlboro dangling from his lips.
On my first day living at the corner of Huergo and Clay, I learned to get off the #15 colectivo in front of the little Catholic church that listed to one side. I learned to walk up the block, away from the bustling thoroughfare that was Avenida Luis María Campos—past the pizzeria, past the mechanized gate belonging to the ritzy apartment complex next door, and past the saccharine storefront of Glam Girl Postrería, where a bald porteño glowered behind pastel canisters of ginger cookies and chocolate biscotti. I learned to take the rickety service lift instead of the main elevator and to enter the apartment through the back door by inserting the heavy Victorian key into the lock upside down. I learned that I would wash the dishes every third night—or more frequently if Mario left on a voyage with the Merchant Marine, which he did every few weeks. I learned not to turn the handles on the kitchen sink too far to the right, so the porcelain wouldn’t crack. I made feverish mental notes as María Luz walked me through the apartment. She retraced our route once more just to point out Mario’s late mother’s oil paintings adorning the walls, lingering by each one like a museum docent. One in particular stands out in my memory—a Turner-esque nautical landscape hung above the couch, a solitary sailboat bobbing in a champagne shaft of light.
María Luz herself was delicate and doll-like. She had clearly been beautiful, petite, with sugarplum cheeks and wide brown eyes and strawberry-blonde hair cut just below her earlobes. Her colorful cardigans bagged slightly around her waist and shoulders. Her slight frame was misleading, it turned out. When I first met María Luz, she heaved my hard-shell suitcase into the trunk of the waiting taxi with one arm.
María Luz was sixty-five years old the spring I moved to Buenos Aires—though it was technically fall in my new hemisphere. I did the math after Mario bragged one night that he had wooed her forty-five years earlier. María Luz was just twenty and still living with her parents when Mario’s bunkmate in the Merchant Marine convinced him to tag along on a date with María Luz’s older sister. After that night, Mario wrote María Luz letters daily. He took her on walks to the rose garden and to get churros y chocolate at Café Tortoni when he touched down in Buenos Aires between voyages. They dated for a demure, respectable year and did not share a bed until they were married, as was expected and required.
María Luz visibly brightened when I told her about Ben, my boyfriend of two years and the only other Latin American Studies major in our graduating class of almost two thousand. She pressed her palms to her heart when I explained that Ben had chosen a different program in the same city. I didn’t tell her that twice a week I hopped on the #15 and met Ben in front of an unmarked building that looked to be partially under construction. A telo, one of the pay-by-the-hour sex hotels frequented by unmarried porteños still living with their parents. I told Mario and María Luz the story of how we had met on the very first day of college. María Luz clapped her hands together and cooed, “Ay, qué liiindo.” How sweet. I didn’t tell them about our recent fight at midnight on the #126—how I hissed at him to Go. Home. How the next morning we both cried into our cortados in Tienda de Café, ignoring the stares.
* * *
In my first month at Apartment 10C, I made and illustrated a small book as a gift to Mario and María Luz, a field guide to my life. I included pictures of my family, my house in the suburbs, and the Jewish museum where I’d worked for three years in high school. I stapled in a map of the Bay Area, which Mario studied fastidiously. I sketched my university’s turreted welcome hall.
I told them about my college friends, each one a different species of social studies major. I told them about St. Louis—though I left out the roadblocks and highway shutdowns and tear gas and silent demonstrations in the cafeteria. I told them about my mom, who looked like me, taught at Stanford, and worked as a criminal defense lawyer. I showed them how to scroll through my younger brother’s Instagram feed to see his digital cartoons. I didn’t tell them much about my dad—not about how he smoked pot, tolerated his insurance job, and wore the same jean jacket every day over graphic T-shirts that said things like “7 Up Yours” and “Who’s Pete Sake?”
Both Mario and María Luz came from traditional European families. Mario was the product of a long line of French military men—puro francés, he liked to remind me, punctuating each syllable with a shake of his fist. I knew he meant that no one in his lineage, or that of María Luz, had ever mixed with someone indigenous. Historically, Argentina prided itself on being a nation of white immigrants—in reality, most arrived from Southern Europe, specifically Italy. I passed nearly as many pizza places per block in Buenos Aires as I had in New York City. Argentines even spoke a different Spanish, called castellano, a Spanish-Italian hybrid that undulated like slam poetry and required an entirely different verb conjugation in the second person. It seemed telling that the residents of Buenos Aires still identified as porteños, in reference to the city’s thriving port. From the word puerta, also meaning “door.” The name sounded vaguely nostalgic—porteño, one who belongs to a doorway.
Mario loved telling me about his childhood. He grew up on a handsome ranch in the Argentine countryside, playing in the pampa during the day and listening to his grandfather’s war stories in the evening, while his mother scolded him for leaning his elbows on the table. Mario rarely talked about money but it was clear that he had never wanted for much. He was an only child. I knew instinctively that Mario’s inheritance had allowed him to give his wife a good life, a coveted financial stability. I assumed so, in part because I had never heard him mention the 2001 economic crash, when banks closed and Argentina’s situation looked so dire that the president fled the executive palace in a helicopter.
Mario’s mother had died when he was just sixteen, leaving him and his father to fend for themselves. Mario became a formidable cook. Sporting his cobalt Superman apron, he toiled over elaborate beef stews with vegetables and potatoes, or lentils with sausage sopped up by fresh bread, or roasted pork loin accompanied by elegant arcs of squash. When Mario uncorked a bottle of wine at the table, María Luz sipped a half-glass while we got drunk. She held a stern palm over the mouth of her glass when Mario, pink-cheeked, tried repeatedly to refill it.
On nights when it was María Luz’s turn to cook, on the other hand, I learned to expect tarta. The argentine take on quiche. Spinach tarta, tuna tarta, ham-and-cheese tarta. She kneaded the flaky pastry crust herself using her mother’s handwritten recipe, which she kept neatly folded in a square basket in the kitchen.
That slip of paper comprised almost everything I learned about María Luz’s family. Even by the end of my time on Huergo, I knew almost nothing about who she had been, and just as little about who she had become. Most of what I learned about her, I found in the negative space surrounding Mario. She was there in the attentive silence that accompanied his rants about politics; she was present in her absence from his grand stories about adventuring on the high seas to Delhi and Shanghai and Savannah, Georgia. That was back when he traveled nine months out of the year and María Luz had remained at home in Buenos Aires to care for their three children. While she had not attended college, Mario took university classes on and off for twenty years to finally receive his engineering degree. His framed diploma sat on the cabinet—within arm’s reach of the dining room table.
* * *
Even when the whole family was home, the apartment itself felt eerily still. The white doilies draping the mahogany end tables barely fluttered in the breeze when I heaved open the sliding door to the balcony, searching for a shred of relief from the building’s oppressive central heating system. María Luz was the only one who could make the apartment move. She took it apart and put it back together again every day. By the time I jiggled the lock open at around five, the apartment had settled back into its shape—the dust was gone from the seam where the molding met the floorboards, the rust polished from beneath the faucet in the bath, and the faint Venn diagram stains from my coffee mug wiped from the kitchen counter. María Luz told me she would respect my privacy, and thus the hardwood floor of my bedroom was the only one that remained stubbornly gross.
We all had our routines. I woke up at eight for class at nine, stumbled out the door fifteen minutes late, stayed until four, then took the colectivo to tango class or to a park with a group of classmates and a bottle of wine. Mario and María Luz were up and about by six. If he had a meeting or a luncheon, Mario would peck his wife on the cheek, squash a black bowler hat onto his bald pate, then give me a playful salute on his way out the door. I never knew when Mario left the city on a voyage until a day passed and he still hadn’t come home.
The apartment moved through its own routine. Two slices of white bread awaited me in the toaster every morning. The breakfast table was always draped by a red-and-white checked tablecloth that reminded me of a 1950’s Coca-Cola advertisement. There was always a carton of dulce de leche, a tub of queso crema, and a silver gravy boat filled with berry jam—complete with a small metal spoon. Always two placemats. Always two paper napkins folded into crisp triangles. I would spread jam on my toast, my elbows tucked close to my ribs. Even as I stood up after breakfast, to clear my plate and toss my crumpled napkin in the trash, a new place setting materialized in my wake. When I slept until four on Saturdays, I plodded into the kitchen to find a two-egg omelet with ham and cheese already steaming under a plate that dribbled droplets of humidity onto the tablecloth when removed.
On weekend afternoons, when I had no plans, I sat with Mario in front of the TV. I’d arrived in Argentina just two months after the new president, Mauricio Macri, had taken office. Macri was a conservative businessman from a millionaire family—an “outsider” to politics. He had triumphed over the representative of the previous presidenta’s party after a tense runoff. I learned that in Argentina, rather than identifying with a particular party, people classified their political leanings by the person representing them. Mario and María Luz were macristas.
María Luz sometimes joined us on the couch, but more often than not she flitted around the apartment, tidying or preparing dinner in the kitchen, hermetically sealing tarta within layers and layers of Saran wrap. Once a week she attended board meetings for the apartment building, where they discussed things like how to politely deal with the smell coming from Apartment 4D, or whether to pass the motion to lower the central temperature by two degrees.
I found Argentina in the midst of a political pendulum swing to the right. The office of the presidency had been occupied by sort-of-leftists for the last twelve years—first by Néstor Kirchner, then by his wife, Cristina. Over the course of two terms, Cristina railed against American imperialism and expanded welfare for poor families and single mothers. She fixed the national currency at eight pesos to the dollar to keep prices low, though this could only disguise the country’s rapacious inflation, not stanch it. Sometimes, when Mario clicked the power button on the remote, Cristina’s face would fill the screen. She had once hosted regular demonstrations at the presidential palace—the Casa Rosada—named for its color, a garish salmon pink. Dressed in all white and standing on the balcony before her deafening masses of supporters, she looked like the brunette resurrection of Evita Perón. Now, she saturated the news as a suspect in a sweeping corruption scandal. It was all anyone could talk about. Cristina had allegedly accepted millions of dollars in bribes and laundered even more out of her empty hotels in the countryside.
María Luz shook her head, disgusted. She often commented on Cristina’s appearance. So much plastic surgery, do you see? Caked in makeup, and her nails, always painted. A woman in her sixties, imagine.
Macri seemed determined to unravel everything the Kirchners had built. He unfroze the peso and repaid four billion dollars of the national debt to foreign creditors (whom Cristina had dubbed “vulture funds”—investors who preyed on the country’s economy after the 2001 crash). He invited President Obama to visit Buenos Aires the weekend of one of the country’s most charged national holidays—March 24, the National Day of Remembrance for Truth, which marked the anniversary of the 1976 military coup.
The irony was not lost on me. On a field trip to the National Archives in Paraguay, I had held in my hands a letter signed by Henry Kissinger advising the dictatorships of the Southern Cone to quell communist subversion by “any means necessary.” I knew as well that the United States had sponsored the School of the Americas, which trained Latin American military personnel in anticommunist warfare and torture tactics. Over the seven years the military officially held power, thirty thousand people vanished in Argentina. Thousands more were lost in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil.
When I left the house to get a hangover empanada the morning after Macri’s announcement, I realized halfway down the block that the mailboxes and telephone poles were plastered with flyers. On hundreds of sheets of white printer paper, the same phrase, dripping blood from its exclamation points: “¡¡¡FUERA OBAMA!!!” I rubbed my temples. My head throbbed before the decades of pain that lived in those words: Get out.
“¿Viste?” María Luz greeted me darkly when I stepped through the door into the kitchen. Did you see? I nodded. Shame, she said. Shame, shame. They want to keep us stranded in the past.
I didn’t tell Mario or María Luz that a few weeks later, on March 24, I took the bus to the centro and joined hundreds of thousands of Argentines—more people than I had ever seen in one place—as they marched toward the Plaza de Mayo. I shivered at the sight of the banners, so wide they filled Avenida Córdoba. Beneath them marched the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who had organized to find their vanished sons and daughters, in their signature white kerchiefs, and the H.I.J.O.S., who worked to reconnect children kidnapped by the military with their biological families.
They want to keep us stranded in the past. I looked around at the hordes blocking the avenue, many just children, born decades after the dictatorship’s end. Kids rode on their parents’ shoulders carrying signs that read “¡NUNCA MAS!” Never again.
I fibbed and told my host parents I had spent the day with Ben. I couldn’t even begin to imagine that conversation. Mario came from a military family. María Luz had become a military wife. I tried not to think too hard about what it could mean—what that could have meant.
* * *
In the evenings at 210 Huergo, María Luz zig-zagged across the apartment, tugging once on the metal cords that illuminated each lamp one by one. I clattered into the kitchen through the back door after eight, windswept and increasingly pink-cheeked as the months passed and Buenos Aires shunned fall, sinking instead into a frigid, snowless winter. By the time I’d flung my scarf and mittens on my Mickey Mouse comforter and returned to help María Luz set the table, she had already arranged the floral dinner tray with decanters of olive oil and vinegar, three paper napkins and cutlery, and a large blue Bombay Gin bottle with the label scrubbed away, which we used to fill our water glasses.
Mario and María Luz planned two dinner parties, or asados, during my time at Apartment 10C. Mario did all the cooking. The asado revolved around meat—chorizo, flank steak, tongue, brain, a few mysterious glands whose names all meant “gland,” and my favorite, morcilla, or blood sausage, slathered on slices of baguette. Traditionally, you barbecued the meat on a parrilla outdoors starting early in the afternoon. I wondered where my host parents kept theirs. Our balcony was empty, so perhaps the roof? On the morning of the party, María Luz motioned me over to the stove and tugged open a hidden compartment at its base—a slatted grill, where a broiler would have been.
The guests arrived around seven—first Ben, followed by Javier, the son of María Luz’s best friend. I was stunned to learn that María Luz’s two nieces lived a few floors below us in our building. Both had been invited, along with their husbands, but neither came. Maybe for the best, I thought. The apartment could only hold so many bodies.
Dinner conversation flowed easily with help from three bottles of Malbec. I took an instant liking to Javier. He was in his thirties, tall and burly, with shoulders so broad in his plaid flannel coat that his frame filled the doorway. His thick black beard made him look all the more like a lumberjack. He’d recently moved to our neighborhood from a slum on the city’s outskirts. I could tell this pleased María Luz, though her eyes narrowed when Javier mentioned that he actually missed watching men get mugged and beaten on the street below his balcony.
Javier was a photojournalist and videographer. I noticed the way he skirted María Luz’s inquiries into his work, filling and refilling his water glass from the blue Bombay bottle, repeating, “Es difícil.” It’s hard. She pursed her lips and tsked just loud enough for him to hear. Ben raised his eyebrows at me from across the dinner table. I fought to keep my expression neutral. I suspected that Javier had decided it was easier to let María Luz believe he was unemployed, for the same reason both of us reached for our wine glasses whenever Mario or María Luz mentioned President Macri.
Lena is a writer, Mario proclaimed in Javier’s direction. We locked eyes, and I blushed at the intensity burning in the shadow of his browbone. It’s hard, I thought at him and hoped he could hear me.
Poor Javi, María Luz sighed at breakfast the next morning. He needs a father figure. Javier’s father had left when he was young.
My toast lurched in my stomach when she told me about his uncle. That during the dictatorship, just before Javier was born, his mother’s younger brother had disappeared—or rather, had disappeared in the way that “to disappear” in Argentina had become a haunted verb, implying a sinister, anonymous force. Desaparecer: to make someone disappear. Or, in the case of the thirty thousand communist “subversives” who vanished like Javi’s uncle, to be disappeared by someone. Javi’s uncle was just eighteen when he went missing.
I thought of all the books I had read on the “Dirty War”—the accounts from desperate mothers searching for sons and daughters last seen shoved into the backseat of dark green Ford Falcons, and the interviews with prisoners who escaped the military’s clandestine torture centers, scorched and scarred from the electric cattle prod, but alive. The bloated bodies dredged up from the Río de la Plata. The interminable list of names carved into vast slabs of stone at the Parque Nacional de la Memoria, names known as the desaparecidos. The Disappeared.
I had never met someone related to a desaparecido. I wondered if I had unknowingly marched alongside Javi at the demonstration on the National Day of Remembrance. His distance in the face of María Luz’s probing suddenly clicked into place. I knit my fingers together until the knuckles turned white, as María Luz continued puttering around the kitchen.
On the day of our second and final asado, two weeks before I was set to return home to California, María Luz cleaned the living room twice over. She changed out the usual floral tablecloth for one that was pure white. She set the table for five, with matching placemats instead of our usual hodgepodge. This time I knew to expect the guests at the formal entry in the dining room. I stepped into the role of assistant hostess, handing Javier and his mother their first glasses of wine as we loitered around the coffee table.
I felt the air humming at a higher frequency. Javier’s mother had flown down from Tucumán to check on her rental properties in the capital. She was a giant, imposing woman with a severe bob and resonant voice. She acted like María Luz’s older sister, though they were the same age. Javier nursed his glass of wine, fidgeting in the fetters of his thick cable knit crewneck. It came up how earlier that week Javi’s mother had accompanied him to a job interview at Clarín, a major conservative newspaper in Buenos Aires. Javier stiffened in his chair.
How exciting, to take advantage of your mother’s connections like this! María Luz was aflutter. I noticed a pink flush on the apples of her cheeks as she downed the last of her glass of Pinot Grigio. When will you hear about the position? Javier muttered something unintelligible. For the first time, an awkward silence hovered above the table.
He turned it down, his mother said, an edge to her voice. Javier stared at the bloody remains of his steak. María Luz bit her lips so hard they disappeared.
Mario slapped his palms down on either side of his plate and stood up. I winced as the legs of his chair scraped the floor. He strolled into the kitchen and began noisily spooning sugared pears into teacups with whipped cream for dessert.
After midnight, María Luz closed the door behind Javi and his mother and immediately turned to me. She sighed, exasperated. “Está perdido.” He’s so lost. On the contrary, I thought—Javier seemed to me to know exactly what he wanted, or rather, exactly what he did not want. Clarín had famously clashed with Cristina’s leftist government a few years earlier.
María Luz’s voice climbed in decibel. Her lips curled. Ever since Javier found out the truth about his uncle, he’s been like this. I must have looked puzzled, because she straightened up and eyed me meaningfully. Javier’s tío was a Montonero. A communist, a guerrilla. From the fire in her voice, I knew she meant “terrorist.” The word snapped like kindling on her tongue.
I stayed silent. María Luz stared me down, unblinking. Javier idolizes him. The martyr, who sacrificed himself for his country. She snarled. He hid machine guns beneath his bed. She nearly shouted—He put their family in danger. She jabbed behind her at the front door without turning her head. In this building, downstairs, there was a bomb. Not set by Javier’s uncle, surely—but allegedly planted by a Montonero in a targeted assassination of a military officer, detonated while his wife lay sleeping.
María Luz must have been about thirty at the height of the dictatorship, not far from the average age of a desaparecido. She must have already borne their three children. I saw in her mind’s eye the terror invading her sanctum through the cracks in the floorboards, wafting up the elevator shaft, and seeping beneath the front door. I pictured her babies asleep in my bedroom, the Mickey Mouse comforter rising and falling with each milky breath. I imagined the bile lapping at her throat each time the train rumbled by ten stories down, the teacups clattering in their saucers, and the whistle’s shrill scream shredding the silence like tissue paper. Every twenty minutes, the threat of an ending. I imagined the orderly dining room coated in ash and dust—chunks of plaster on the white linen tablecloth, the blue Bombay Gin bottle shattered like sea glass on the floor.
I nodded without breaking eye contact. I felt as if I had waded into the great river that stretched between her and Javi, deep and murky as the Río de la Plata. On several occasions, I’d taken the colectivo to the Park of Memory and stood at the lip of the Río watching the wind chop at the surface tension. I thought again of María Luz’s admonishment before the memorial march: They want to keep us stranded in the past. I looked down and saw the riverbed cluttered with the refuse of memory, bones worn smooth as pearls.
María Luz held my gaze for a moment longer, then seemed to remember herself and shook her head as if to clear it. She turned and began briskly folding the tablecloth into quarters. On her way out, she cast the crisp linen packet on the chair by the entrance to the kitchen to wash by hand the following day.
* * *
The next morning the purr of the laundry stirred me from sleep before my alarm. I uncurled my limbs from the fetal position, which I had adopted so my heels wouldn’t whack the footboard. I padded into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Particles of dirt from my bedroom floor clung to the pads of my feet. I had learned to return my toothbrush to the top-right drawer and to wipe away the white crust of toothpaste that dribbled from the mouth of the tube onto the counter. My elbow knocked the dainty oak stool that crowded the sink. I lunged to steady the porcelain figurine of a young girl in a pink dress, seated with her heels tucked beneath her, that greeted me every morning.
I paused in the doorway to the kitchen. María Luz bent over the counter, her strawberry blonde hair still wet from the shower and combed into a cowlick at the nape of her neck. I watched as she placed two slices of white bread in the toaster slots and adjusted one so it stood upright. She started the coffeemaker, rummaged in the fridge for the dulce de leche, the queso crema, and the silver boat of berry jam, arranging each container neatly on the breakfast tray. She reached into the cupboard for the tub of peanut butter purchased especially for me from the kiosko down the street. I felt as if I were glimpsing the making of a movie I had seen a thousand times before—the boom microphone crowding into the frame for an instant, the wide canvas of blue sky suddenly wheeled into the wings. I peered through the doorway to the living room and found Mario seated on his reclining chair, absorbed in the copy of Clarín splayed before him, his glasses clinging to the tip of his nose.
María Luz placed the breakfast tray upon the red-and-white checked tablecloth, then looked up and caught my eye. All traces of the previous night’s anguish had vanished from her features. She smiled, wished me good morning, and pressed down the lever on the toaster, locking in its cargo with a click.