“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows”
One sunny Sunday, Fernanda decided we would spend the new year partying in Arica. Her father had bought her a four-wheel-drive truck when she enrolled in college, and despite the fact that she crashed it just a few weeks before, I agreed to go with no fear. At sixteen, life was simple and clear: I would make myself available as long as I was promised fun and adventure.
Two other factors also contributed to my final decision: the excitement of visiting that discrete and stretched-out country called Chile, plus the fascination I felt for Fernanda’s lit-up, happy face; for her curly hair that ran in curvy lines and ended in two braids on top of her head like a laurel wreath. But, more than anything, for the smooth and delicate ellipse of her white-washed denim miniskirt in the summer. I never imagined that the trip, of which I have good memories, and which led me to meet Barriguita Brown as a matter of fate and fortune, would be the end of our friendship.
Fernanda had just arrived from Miami, where she went to high school, and she often spoke of boutique hotels, expensive cocktails, spring breaks, Los Cayos, South Beach, and Ocean Drive. Her little photo album was jam packed with white sand, waiters built like bodyguards, convertible sports cars, back-patio swimming pools, and façades of art deco homes. Miami, through Fernanda, did not seem like a city for old retirees, but rather a tourist complex for the young and bronzed. She was as happy and radiant as a little kid with a new toy; I, on the other hand, was an authentic and decadent skeptic. Besides, my situation was another and my world was very different from hers. At the end of the eighties, Peru was in economic ruins. At the start of the nineties, I had accepted an image of the past decade that summed up the history of my homeland: the image of a washing machine.
I remember going back home after school, back then, when washing machines were almost a luxury item. My mother had an old one that looked like a cylinder, and the dryers weren’t automatic; they consisted only of two rollers that you had to push the clothes through using a crank, much like the artisanal machines they use to make pasta. With difficulty, I stuck my head inside the machine and there they were. The plastic propeller stuck out like a black, ominous bird. And around the rim, a huge quantity of wadded-up bills. I thought nobody could see me, I tried to pull out a few bills and hide them in my pocket, but the voice behind my back stopped me in my tracks. “All yours. Yesterday you could buy a lot with that much; today, if you’re lucky, it’ll be enough for a piece of candy,” said my father, who was standing in the doorframe. And so I learned that, in this perverse realm where I lived, things lost value at the speed of light in a vacuum, everything lost value over time. Peruvian currency was as dangerous as a drunk Russian drumming his fingers on the trigger of a loaded gun; the only thing that maintained its value were the brass coins called RIN, which served uniquely and exclusively to make phone calls in public booths.
After the crash, opening the doors of Fernanda’s car was complicated – you had to lower the windows and lever them open from outside – but besides that, the truck was modern and well-equipped. We left from Arequipa toward Tacna at three in the afternoon. The highway was a black snake stretching across the white earth; most of the landscape was made up of bare hills that thrusted up out of the horizon in the distance. The wind was strong and it blew through my hair; I felt like an actor in a movie for the first part of the trip, then I listened to music for a while before becoming brutally bored halfway through the journey. The route was like a desert, owing not to the lack of vegetation but to the lack of people. Very occasionally, a car passed by us or we saw birds flying over our heads toward the coast. At some point in the journey I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke up the sky was growing dark. Fernanda was yawning, the light on the car roof flickered, faint and yellow; I stretched my legs and arms and turned off the light. She turned it back on. She exhaled heavily and blinked unhurriedly; she seemed to be forcing herself to stay awake.
“Stop and rest if you’re tired. I don’t want to die young,” I said.
“If you want to live, don’t talk shit,” she replied while she turned up the radio.
In Tacna I suggested that she park the car and drink a cup of coffee, but she acted like she didn’t hear me.
“Come on, have a coffee,” I repeated.
“It’s bad for my health.”
“It’ll help wake you up.”
“I already had my daily dose at breakfast.”
She soon found a place to park and we entered a shopping strip; she finally took heed and ordered a black coffee with two sugar cubes, then she bought a pair of Bollé sunglasses for the beach. After that, we pass through the border controls without problems. Two parked patrol cars give off constant sirens and several police officers walk with dogs toward an old, rundown truck. A second later, the scene disappears from the rearview mirror and our car is once again locked in to the highway. The engine purrs and Fernanda doesn’t take her foot off the gas pedal. “A woman at the wheel makes for dangerous curves,” I say, and she slows down and smiles.
Arica is modern, enclosed by clayey hills. We cross the city toward the sea and warm air invades the car. People in flip-flops stroll through the idyllic streets, unconcerned and enjoying themselves. We park at the esplanade, in front of a huge, modern nightclub that arises out of the brown sand, as brown as all-natural sugar. Fernanda leans her head against the door, seemingly defeated by exhaustion, and asks me to wake her up after an hour while the club’s neon lights bombard the car’s windows.
“Don’t think you’re celebrating the new year without me.”
I see the truck covered in dust from the highway, the windshield covered in a light layer of moisture; I get out and take a few steps backwards down the warm beach.
“I couldn’t possibly without your wisdom and assistance,” I tell her.
Barriguita Brown wears white tennis shoes with no socks, her tan skin shines under the moon, a moon that gives off a strange light and a certain sense of sadness. I want to ask her things, but she’s the one who talks, about love and history and a couple of rock bands that she loves. I listen while drinking from the long neck of my beer bottle. Her knowledge of English culture is impressive; then she criticizes educated society. There can be no counterculture if there’s no official culture in Chile, she says. We’ve left the nightclub and we’re sitting against a wall, a dividing line between the sand and the asphalt. Far away, we hear the sea crashing against the universe and dragging little stones off the beach into its domain.
Just a few weeks later, she visits me. I’m renting a small apartment in the Cayma neighborhood, and the landlady tells me she won’t raise the rent as long as the visit doesn’t go over three weeks. Barriguita Brown is surprised by the symmetry of the volcano you can see from my window, then she sticks her hand in her backpack and pulls out a little portrait of her father, an old and yellowing photo. I see a man with intense black eyes; he can’t be much older than we are, but they look grave and eternal; he wears his hair long, with a wide, dark moustache.
“He just disappeared one day. They marked him down as disappeared in ‘81,” she says.
“Do you know why?”
“For being a supporter.”
She insists on that word, supporter, rather than collaborator. She was five years old and one day her father didn’t pick her up from kindergarten.
For weeks we walk through the streets and plazas, within a few days she knows Arequipa as if it were her native city. She prefers it at night. It’s indecipherable and magical for a foreigner, she argues, she measures it up and then plays as the mysterious, mystical girl, she uses the fingers of one hand as a fan and hides her face. We visit the bars, she drinks beer, sometimes wine, she listens to music, she kisses me and lulls herself to sleep.
I understand in short order that I must arrive on time, if I don’t arrive at the time we agreed upon her anxiety will spiral out of control. She’s been through therapy but the psychiatrists haven’t been able to cure her, she vomits and can’t stop, sometimes she shakes, it’s a lapse that could be momentary or long-lasting but that always leaves her exhausted. I understand now why the plastic bags disappear from my kitchen; I don’t understand why people must disappear from our countries.
One afternoon, I return to the apartment and Barriguita Brown isn’t there; my neighbor tells me they took her to the police station. One year before, a video went around of the leader of the subversive group known as Shining Path, showing a man dancing like Zorba the Greek, surrounded by militant women, each one with her hair in a bun. The man smiles, pants for air, scrapes against the ground, snaps his fingers to the rhythm of the music, claps, smiles, stands up on one foot like a crane, flirts, teases and provokes one of his minions. The central committee surrounds and celebrates him, everyone is wearing black as if they were at a funeral.
When I get to the police station, Barriguita Brown is walking out. They’ve interrogated her for two hours for listening to Mikis Theodorakis on the cassette player in my living room, they’ve confiscated the tape because the music is related to terrorism in my country. We go back to the apartment; she’s angry and when she’s angry she walks in front of me. I follow her, watching her hair fall down her back to her waist; a plastic bag pokes out of the back pocket of her worn-out jeans. Suddenly she raises her hand as if she were holding up two banderillas in the air, ready to stick them in the back of a bull, her Converse stop on point. Then she dances and spins like a top in the center of the cosmos. I grab hold of her and we walk hand in hand until we reach home.
In the morning, the hill we call Arica looks like the head of a sperm whale, elevated and rigid, lying under a white sun. Barriguita Brown is wearing a white t-shirt that says: a people without memory is a people without a future. We look for Fernanda at the esplanade and I find her asleep in the truck; I’m drunk, I wake her up with the sound of the car horn and tell her happy new year. Shouts and insults rain down on me, everything is blurry. In the afternoon I cross the border on a bus, alone and terribly hung over; a blue wind sails over the highway home, with a few fallen leaves and a smell of fearsome, burning earth.
Her name is Javiera, but she prefers to go by the nickname they gave her as a child, Barriguita Brown.
“How did we meet?”
“Yeah, but where?”
“In a club in Arica.”
“What a good memory you have,” she says.
We’re in a European country, they’ve invited me to a literature festival and Javiera has found out. The sunlight shines no further than a small lobby with oak-panelled walls. A glass and metal spiral staircase rises to the third floor. The floor itself has red tiles and a Persian rug with a pattern of plants and peels that seem to be fading away with the passage of time. It smells like an ancient old country house: earth and wood, dust and floor wax.
“And you saw me.”
“I used to like dancing.”
“You weren’t the best.”
“There was something fragile and beautiful in the way you moved.”
Javiera raises her eyes, she rubs her neck with one hand, the other is a closed fist in her lap. She’s gotten older, but she still shows traces of a symmetrical, attractive face.
“What was I dancing to?”
“A Chilean band was playing, really raging.”
“Los Prisioneros, amazing band.”
“Yeah, them. Then you asked where I was from and I said Peru.”
I stopped and started to walk, I dodged a Chinese vase and arrived at the spot where a globe rested; I began to look for my country, it looked so small next to Brazil.
“Now I remember, I told you I’d like to go to Peru and you said you’d take me and sell me to the cannibals. Do they exist?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never bumped into one.”
“You said they marinate girls like me in beer, then eat them.”
“I made that up.”
“They marinate them?”
“Maybe. You were already marinated.”
She’s married and childless, she lives a comfortable life, her husband is a successful Chilean businessman. Her only complaint is that he can get very jealous. We talk about our childhood; from a distance, on another continent, we seem to be children of violence, dictatorship, terrorism, and corruption. I wonder if all of this existed to teach us about our good fortune, at least we survived all of that. According to the Truth Commission, both Peru and Chile have terrifyingly high numbers of dead and disappeared.
She listens to my reflections, she intervenes with intelligence and brevity and every so often she exhales the smoke from her cigarette or sips her glass of red wine.
“Did you know I crossed paths with Fernanda a few years ago?”
She doesn’t wait for a response, she continues telling me about the circumstances without pause. They saw each other at the airport in New York while waiting for their flights, they had a coffee and Fernanda told her she was in the city to sort out her divorce papers.
Suddenly the door opens and a fat man in an expensive suit appears. “My husband,” says Javiera nervously, as if the man were an indomitable beast who deserved to be feared.
She introduces me as a real estate agent and I follow along, but in reality I have no idea how to act like a real estate agent.
“He’s come to look at the house,” Javiera says. “But he knows we’re not interested in selling.”
“Just a minute,” says the man, “you say you’re a real estate agent. Perhaps you could tell me who you are and which agency you represent?”
“Anyone can just say he’s a real estate agent and walk into someone’s house.”
It seems like he wants to start a fight, his face goes red while he rapidly undoes the knot of his necktie. Seconds later the strip of silk is hanging like a dead animal around his neck.
“Sounds like a good excuse to see what valuables we have,” he says.
“Don’t be paranoid, darling,” Javiera tries to calm him down and then switches to the language of the country where they reside.
I think I would like to hear her speak a language I could understand, but then I realize that in these situations it’s best not to understand what’s going on. The man calms down, leaves his jacket hanging off the sofa, and disappears up the spiral staircase without saying goodbye.
She takes me out through the kitchen, which leads to a back door that opens onto the garden. There the afternoon falls upon us, distant and electric purple; we watch it, amazed and incredulous. As if the world were trying to tell us something.
Translated by Arthur Dixon