Perla ~ Excerpt




Sometimes, to hide your sadness, you have to cut yourself in two. That way you can bury half of yourself, the unspeakable half, and leave the rest to face to the world. I can tell you the first time I did this. I was fourteen years old, standing in a bathroom stall holding the last note I would ever receive from my friend Romina, a note consisting of a single question in furious capital letters.

We had been in class together for years, but did not grow close until we were thirteen, when Romina began to have her experience. That was her own word for it, experience, spoken in a hallowed tone that gave it an aura of great mystery.

“An experience,” I repeated blankly, the first time I heard of it.

“Come over tonight, I’ll show you,” Romina said.

As it turned out, Romina’s experience was nothing more and nothing less than the philosophical and aesthetic expansion of her world. She had begun exploring her parents’ bookshelves. That was all.

We began to spend hours together after school, after homework was done, exploring books, ideas, poems, life’s great questions. We pillaged her parents’ bookcase, pulling volumes down, reading, and sharing our findings with each other.

Needless to say, the other girls found this new friendship strange, even laughable. But I didn’t care. I had never had a friend that ignited me like Romina. I no longer pitied her as I had at age six, when she first told me about her uncles. At that time, the democracy was about to turn one. Romina’s uncles had been gone for seven years, or so she told me in the coatroom at school. There were many people like that, she’d whispered. Many peole who never came home in the Bad Years. Her grandmother marched in the plaza downtown every week, so that they would return. But, Romina said, taking off her green galoshes, Mamá said that’s crazy, they won’t come back, because they’re dead.

Now, I saw her as fearless and free, and I wanted to be more like that, even if it meant that the other girls stopped calling my house, gave me berth. In some ways, I was in fact free then, perhaps more so than at any other time in my life—though there were limits. Every Thursday, Romina went to the Plaza de Mayo, where she marched in a long, slow circle with her grandmother and many other women in white kerchiefs carrying placards with enormous black- and- white photographs of men and women who had vanished long ago, and messages also: WE DEMAND JUSTICE, WE WANT THEM BACK WITH LIFE. It was a part of her world that made me sting with discomfort. I could not reconcile this aspect of her life with the rest of her. Mamá, after all, insisted that the accusations about desaparecidos were untrue; if these women in the plaza were caught up in a big mistake, unable to accept the wanderlust of their sons (and wouldn’t it be good if it had always been that, if Romina’s uncles had just gone roaming the world! if they arrived back one day with too-long hair and exotic tales to tell!)— then wouldn’t Romina with all her sophistication see through her family’s delusions?

Unless they were not delusions. Unless the people in the plaza were the ones with the truth, and I was the one who breathed in lies. This strange thought hovered inside me, a live grenade. I did not know what to believe. I wondered whether Romina was as sure of her beliefs as she seemed. I wondered what went through her mind as she marched the plaza, what it meant to her, what she privately thought about her family’s weekly ritual. Whether she participated for herself, or just to placate her abuela, and, above all, whether she also harbored doubts.

But these were not questions I would ever ask aloud. The topic was hazardous, to be avoided at all costs. She asked me to come with her to these demonstrations— We can go to my house afterward, she said—but I always found an excuse, spoken in a carefully casual voice. I had told her that my father worked in the port, a vague description that was not exactly a lie, was it, considering that the port had to do with water and the Navy did as well? It was just a slight blur of reality. No. I could not fool myself. It was a lie. I had to do it, I told myself, to protect our intimacy, our hours together, the radiant bond I could not bear to lose.

I finally had Romina over to my house, and that was my great mistake. We were at the dining table, doing homework, textbooks spread around us. My parents were both out.

“Are there more books in your father’s study?”


“I want to see them.”

“You can’t.”

I said it too quickly, and Romina put her pencil down and looked up. “Why not?”

“We’re not supposed to go in there.”

She looked surprised, then hesitant. She returned to her work. I thought the danger was gone, but then, an hour later, she went to the bathroom and twenty minutes passed and she still had not returned. I found her in the study. She stood completely still, in front of a bookcase, her profile to the door. Her hands were at her sides, frozen with fingers far apart like startled starfish. I thought of my father coming home at that moment, the invasion discovered, sharp words in front of my friend. We had to leave the room. I searched for the words.

Romina said, “What is this?”

Her voice was tight, almost foreign. I followed her gaze to the bookshelf, where a photograph stood in a silver frame, of my father in full uniform, standing in a row of officers in front of ESMA, the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, with stately door and soaring ivory pillars that, to me, had always evoked the unshakable laws of an ancient world. Romina was staring at it, concentrating furiously, as though working through a complex algebraic equation. Speak, I thought. I need to speak. I opened my mouth, but it was empty.

“He’s one of them, isn’t he,” Romina said. “Your father.”

The silence spread through the room, long tentacles that wrapped around my throat and slid into my belly. I felt seasick. Romina turned and stared at me, and she looked like a girl lost in dark waters, a girl who had just stumbled on evil in those waters, for the first time, in its wild form. A girl looking evil in the face. My face? Mine? No, it could not be, this was terribly wrong, we had fallen through the world’s ice into a mistaken place. I took a step toward her in an attempt to shift the story but her face wrenched into a brutal wail that would not come. “Don’t touch me,” she said, and began to cry without sound. Her body shook violently, straining to sob, straining not to sob, at war with itself.

“Romina,” I said.

She hurried past me, to the dining room, where I heard her packing up her textbooks. I knew I should go in there, say something, persuade her to stay, to understand. But I myself did not understand what had happened, what had spread through the study, the nausea at the pit of me, the look on her face. I could not move. I stared at my father’s desk, which was long and wide and freshly polished, the cherry-dark wood as smooth and gleaming as a mirror. A leatherbound cup of pens stood reflected on the desk, and I knew they all had ink in them; my father was scrupulous about discarding pens as soon as they ran out. I stared at the pens’ reflections. I counted them. There were seven. I counted them again. I was still counting when I heard rapid footsteps, the front door opening, the loud slam shut.

The next day, in class, Romina would not look at me, her back a rod of steely reproach. The naked horror had been replaced by something else, something shuttered and cold. I pretended not to care, although my hand shook as I copied Latin lessons from the blackboard. The fear of losing my friend consumed me. Romina’s voice, surprisingly throaty, reading aloud from a book in the diminishing light. Romina’s face, eyes closed in pleasure, absorbing the sound of a paragraph or poem. Romina bent over her homework, her hair a fine brown wall around her, her pencil turning to shreds between her teeth. Romina in the study, wrestling down sobs. I wanted nothing more in the world than to rebuild our friendship. It seemed a looming task, but in those first days it did not yet seem impossible. The more I thought about it, the more the situation seemed like nothing more and nothing less than a misunderstandings—though, granted, one of epic proportions, historic proportions, a tragic disconnect between two poles of reality as much as between two schoolgirls. It seemed to me that the rift between us was larger than us, larger than either of our understanding—wasn’t it? surely that’s how it was?—since to understand it fully would mean seeing things from all sides, and neither of us had done such a thing. For all I knew, no one in all of Argentina had truly seen all sides. Maybe no one had ever stood in the gales between men like Papá and men like Romina’s uncles and somehow absorbed all of it, the whole scope of the story, every inch of shadow and light. Maybe no one had ever loved a person on both sides of that chasm. It seemed impossible, too far for a heart to stretch. I was trying to do it, and felt dismantled by the effort—and yet in those first days I still longed to occupy that space and swallow everything, mend everything. I still believed in such mendings, with all the fervor and deaf hope of adolescence. Romina, I wanted to say, it’s not what you think, I’m not what you think, I don’t know what we are but I want to discover it with all the roving intellectual boldness we found together. We can rewrite this story; come with me, come back, I’ll explain. I’ll try to explain.

But I never found my chance. A week after the incident, I found a note tucked into my science textbook, on torn paper, in Romina’s unmistakable capital letters:


My hand shook, holding the paper. I couldn’t breathe. I looked around the classroom: the other students were raucously packing their bags, talking about lunch, and Romina was nowhere to be seen. I had read the note undetected. I stuffed it quickly into my pocket and hurried to the bathroom, where I locked myself into a stall and stood with my eyes closed and my face against the door. The stall smelled of urine and cigarettes and the cheap perfume someone had sprayed to disguise the smell of smoke. The note seemed to burn through my pocket, scalding me—I would surely take off my trousers that night and find red puckered skin. I closed my eyes and saw my father, face full of love, at my bedside at night as he stroked my hair and sang a lullaby off-key. I heard his laugh, watching television, the sound of him round and generous and dropping slowly in pitch, ha-ha-ha, as if somersaulting down steep stairs. I heard the long push of his breath as he filled an inflatable pool for me, in the summer, the pfffhhh, pffffhhh of his dedication to my joy. I saw him eating breakfast, about to leave for work, in proud clean uniform, the golden buttons shining on his cuffs. He was not a—no. Could not be. I was enraged. I was ashamed. I felt like breaking everything in sight, only there was nothing in my sight except the blistered paint on the stall door.

The stall door stayed closed in front of me, dispassionate, unyielding, worn.

I stood and stood while time stretched and moaned and pressed around me, until the bell rang to signal the end of lunch. I had forgotten to eat, I was late for class, I was not hungry. I took the note back out, unfolded it, and read it again. It had not changed. I read it and read it and read it. Then I tore it into many little pieces and flushed it down the toilet, a futile act that could not keep me from reading those words incessantly in the coming months, in the dark of night, where they blazed and hovered over my bed.

After this, the crimes of my father—the crimes of the nation, also, crimes to which I had not given words—settled on me, rode my back, draped my shoulders, stuck to me and refused to wipe away. They were not delusions. I could no longer believe they were delusions. Things had happened in this nation, they were true, and Romina’s family had played one role while my family had played another, a role that could not easily be cleansed, and that clung to the underside of my skin like a dense sheet of lead that made it difficult to rise from bed in the mornings. I couldn’t clearly see what my father had done—the images only came in fractured pieces, his gleaming cuffs against a desk, his face gazing through iron bars—nor did I want to see any more clearly. But I had accepted that the disappeared had truly disappeared, and this was enough for condemnation. I was guilty by inheritance. There was no trial, no choice, only the here you go this belongs to you of guilt, which increased with every bite of bread from the dinner table, every absent smile from Papá as he looked up briefly from the morning paper, every brisk kiss I accepted from Mamá as I left for school, every night I burrowed into fresh linens that had been washed by a woman who was paid with pesos that my father earned the way he’d earned them. With every turn and motion and common daily act, the stain occupied more space beneath my skin. It was inescapable. I could no more free myself of it than I could free myself of my own face.

I said nothing to my parents, and they did not seem to suspect that I had changed, that the secret at our family’s heart had become exposed.

At that time, of course, I was sure that it had.

From then on, there were two Perlas: one on the surface who had good grades and good friends and smiled a lot and for whom everything was going fine, and a secret Perla under the surface where sins and shame and questions lay buried alive, like land mines.