by Clara Rogers
Seven can be too much or too little, depending on what you're talking about. Seven shots of tequila for one person are a lot, seven dollars is very little. Seven blowjobs in one night given makes you a whore, seven blowjobs given in a lifetime makes you a frigid bitch. Seven fascist dictatorships seem like a lot, seven is too young to watch a man get kidnapped in broad daylight.
Yes, you read that right. And that's not even the most fucked up story.
I'm Argentinian. It's that country near the bottom of the Earth, the one that only comes up in the news when we owe someone else billions or when people find out our president's son is a drag queen which is genuinely one of our greatest and only sources of pride. Despite everything (and by everything, I mean decades of CIA-backed coups,) we get by, usually much better than our fellow Latin shitholes, for a myriad of reasons. We have a higher white population, we have more money (or at least we look like we do with all our French architecture,) and our dictatorships are in the more distant past, unlike our less fortunate relatives in Chile.
Still, seven fascist dictatorships are a lot. A whole lot. 30,000 disappeared is a lot. That's right, not dead, disappeared. Just poof! Gone, in a flash, no body to bury, no closure. 30,000 open wounds scattered across the country.
I first learned about my family's wound one sunny afternoon after I came home from school. We'd just listened to a song in class called "Los Dinosaurios" by Charly García, a song about the thousands of people who disappeared, extinguished in a flash just like dinosaurs. When I came into the kitchen, I saw my dad making himself tea and I asked, "is there anyone in our family who disappeared?"
He pursed his lips and looked forward the way he always did when he was trying to remember something, as if the answer would appear written on the window in front of him, "yes, my cousin. He went out to buy bread and then he just never came back, no one saw him again."
"What did he do?" I asked.
"He was a student, he read the wrong books," my dad replied matter-of-factly, like when you explain to a child that rain falls from the sky because clouds are evaporated water.
I walked into the dining room in a sort of trance and saw my mom sitting there, stirring her tea. "Did anyone in your family disappear, mom?"
"No, my father was French, we were an apolitical family, but I saw someone get kidnapped," she set her spoon down on the plate, "I was seven years old, and I was riding my bike through the neighborhood. I saw two men shove this guy into the back of a car and then drive away."
I should've asked for more details at the time, I really should've… but I was tired and hungry, so we all just moved on.
I only found out the whole gruesome story years later. I brought it up again because of something I saw with my friend Juan while on our way to the boat Casino. We were walking towards it and then had to go under this overpass. It was this ugly area, cracked cement road, dirty pebbles instead of sidewalks, the car engines roaring above us, pretty much the kind of place you don't want to be in, and then we stopped.
"This is a dictatorship memorial," Juan explained, pointing to a sign that read: "CLUB ATLÉTICO" EX CENTRO CLANDESTINO DE DETENCIÓN, TORTURA Y EXTERMINIO. Meaning: "ATHLETIC CLUB" EX CLANDESTINE CENTER FOR DETENTION, TORTURE AND EXTERMINATION.
Extermination. The word made me shiver, as if those people who bought the 'wrong books' were rats that you found scurrying under the stove, so you just called an exterminator to get rid of them.
As I looked closer at the memorial, which was built directly under the overpass, I noticed several tiny piles of dirt between the columns that held up the highway. They each had little signs stuck on them like tiny makeshift graves, the kind that kids dig in their backyards for their pets. Dozens of little signs with names scribbled on them.
"This is where they took people to torture and murder them," Juan explained, "and the thing is that they didn't know where to put the bodies, so they built a highway on top of it and stuck the corpses into the cement."
I followed the direction of his finger and for the first time saw the red human outlines all along the foundations of the highway, stacked on top of each other like a morbid game of Tetris.
"That's why the outlines are there, to remind people that there are bodies in that cement," he explained.
No matter how hard I try I can't really explain how I felt that day. I don't even know how to start because the truth is that my brain couldn't process what I was seeing, how could anyone's? I spent several moments just standing there, paralyzed, in awe of the horror that I had previously been so blissfully unaware of. Were there other highways built during the dictatorships that didn't have memorials? My whole life, had I been driving on top of enclosed carcasses of sons, daughters, parents, lovers?
How many times had I driven over my cousin's body and never knew?
I felt so empty. My cousin could've been a good person, in fact he probably was, he sounded like he read interesting books and cared about other people. He could've been an ally to me when I found out I liked girls, he could've helped me when my parents freaked out because I was trying to become more independent from them or when my sister started making herself throw up. I pictured him with shaggy blond hair and grey eyes, sitting next to me at my grandmother's house, whispering encouraging words into my ear. My eyes started to water, longing for that moment I never got because some asshole thought that his choice of literature made him too dangerous to exist.
It was too much, too much pain to bear so I told Juan I wanted to get out of there and we did. We walked away from the overpass and over to the casino, gambled away some of our devalued currency that was worth nothing anywhere else. And then I went home.
I didn't think about it until I was with my mom, in the car, driving to the gated community where we spend our weekends because we're disgustingly privileged because of course my dad is an oil lawyer (you can go ahead and laugh, my birthday presents were paid for in pollution money, the extinction of the human race rests on my subconscious.)
While I was in the car, I thought back to all the stuff under the overpass, then I turned to my mom and asked: "you saw two guys kidnap a person during the dictatorships, right?" I had to check if it was still true.
"Oh yeah," she nodded, "yeah, I was very little. I was riding my bike."
I decided I was going to ask for more details this time. Maybe if I did it would make sense and I could apply some form of logic to the horror. "Were they dressed like military officers? Or were they dressed like civilians?"
"No, they were dressed like civilians. They shoved him into the back of a green Falcon, those were the cars that they used, Falcons. It was in the middle of the day, too, the guy was screaming 'HELP! I'M BEING KIDNAPPED!'" She chuckled, like she was telling a fun childhood story, "Of course, no one helped."
"Jesus Christ," I breathed.
"Yeah, I told my mom about it, and she didn't say much. When the other thing happened, she got really pissed though."
"What other thing?" I asked.
"Well, I was out riding my bike again and this military officer stopped me to ask for directions. So, I stopped, and I waited and then he turned his arm so he could show me that he was masturbating," she said, leaning towards me and making the gesture with her arm, like she was stroking an imaginary cock.
"No," I cried, my hand flying to cover my mouth, "no."
"Oh yeah. I rode off and told my mom and of course she was like 'YOU'RE NEVER GOING OUT AGAIN!'" she yelled, waving her arms, and chortling like a character in some comedy I was too young to know.
"How old were you?" I asked, still in shock.
"What? What… what do you mean? Did this happen on the same day?" I demanded to know "The same week?"
She laughed, "No, no, probably the same month."
Then we made our way to the entrance and my mom took out the keycard so we could enter. And the conversation just dissipated into the air like all other memories of the outside as we made our way into our safe, comfortable barrio cerrado (gated community, don't act like you guys don't have them too.)
The next time I thought about it was a few days after, when we were back in the city. We went to the supermarket since we were running low on everything, and I went with my mom to make sure she bought the pistachios I liked.
We were at the checkout, and I caught this subtle whiff of feces ('shit' in layman's terms). I figured I was just imagining it, or some food had gone bad, so I didn't say anything, but then my mom commented "something here smells really bad, like dog poop."
"Oh my god I smelled it too!" I said, laughing at the absurdity of the situation, "weird."
"It's that guy," the cashier chimed in.
I turned looked over and at first, I was confused. All I saw was an old man standing near the other cash register, and he didn't have a dog with him. He didn't look homeless, either. He was dressed in a nice light blue sweater vest with a checkered pattern and grey khakis. He looked like he was angry at another cashier, stabbing his finger in the air accusingly the way entitled old people do. Then my eyes travelled down to see he had a brown stain in his pants.
Realization hit me like a tidal wave, to the point where I said out loud "oh." We joked about it with the cashier who was very angry, "he won't leave," she said exasperatedly. Then my mom started getting nauseous and she insisted that I walk away while she bagged up what was left.
I rushed off and then joined my mom outside who was close to throwing up. "How awful!" she cried, stumbling along the sidewalk. I grabbed her arm to steady her, "I mean I've had that happen to me before, but I asked them to hold my cart for me, went home, showered and went back. I didn't bother anybody."
I remembered the day it happened to her. She'd come home with an air of worry and spoke in that teeny-tiny voice she used when she was embarrassed or sad. She locked herself into the guest bathroom downstairs and then did exactly what she said, went upstairs to her own bathroom, showered, dressed, and then went back out. Boom, done, nothing to it, never to be spoken about again.
I started to wonder if my disappeared cousin's death had been like that. A quick, shameful annoyance that had to be washed off and forgotten.
And then I couldn't believe I was comparing my cousin being executed by the state to my mom shitting herself at a supermarket. As if he hadn't been dehumanized enough. Seeking atonement, I turned to my mom as we walked and asked, "what was my cousin's name?"
She looked disoriented, her mouth was in an 'o' shape, and she was waddling down the street like a sort of seal-woman, comically round and clumsy like she was performing for a circus audience. She turned to me, "huh? Who?"
"The one that disappeared, what was his name?" I demanded, determined not to forget him.
"I don't know, ask your dad."
As soon as we came home, I went upstairs to find my dad sitting in front of the TV. There was an image of a man sitting on a chair with his back to the camera, then jump cut to a black man speaking French.
"Hey, dad. What was the name of uh, my cousin?" I asked, not sure why I was so nervous, "the one who disappeared?"
"Uh… Alvaro," he said, not taking his eyes off the screen. He had a severe look on his face, "why?"
"Alvaro… okay, what was his last name? Rivarola, right?"
"No, Cardenas… why?" he said, making eye contact with me which sent chills shooting down my spine.
"Nothing I was just thinking about that..." I looked at the TV to avoid his stare. The black man was sweating profusely.
"But don't talk to anyone about that..." he said.
"No, Christ, of course not!"
I left without asking why, why couldn't I talk to anyone about that? Who would even give a shit? But it was fine since I would find out anyway.
The next day was a Thursday, I didn't have work, so I was just sitting around wallowing in that afternoon self-pity. My dad popped his head into my room and asked if I wanted to go visit my grandma from his side of the family. I had nothing better to do and visiting old people usually made me feel better because I was raised Catholic, so my sense of self-worth depends entirely on how useful I am to others (and by 'others' I mean 'the old, the sick and the poor,') therefore I said yes.
I walked with him to my grandma's house, and he inquired again "why did you ask me about your cousin the other day?"
I tensed up, not wanting him to know that I was writing about it, "oh I just saw something on Twitter about the disappeared and I thought about how your cousin was one of them, but I never knew his name."
"Álvaro," he said with a big goofy grin in that comical tone he reserved for saying big words in English we didn't know like 'sonder' or 'chrysanthemum,' "his name was Álvaro. He has two brothers who are still alive, Rodrigo and Tomás, one is a psychologist and the other is a theater actor."
My eyes widened, "really? Have I met them?"
His lips parted slightly, and he shook his head, "no, I don't think you have."
I sighed. Another dead end. I made a mental note to ask him about them later to see if he had their phone numbers, maybe I could interview them for the piece.
We dropped the subject since we'd arrived at my grandmother's house, a large colonial building with a big brass door. My dad opened it with his key and then opened a second glass door with a wooden frame that stood in front of a checkered tiled foyer with a dusty old elevator in the back. We stepped in and I pressed the big black button for the sixth floor.
As soon as my dad opened the door to my grandmother's apartment I entered the large foyer and was met with the familiar sight of the boarded up fireplace, the Japanese divider and the hallway in the back that led to my father's childhood bedroom which had two doors going into it, one just behind the section with the fireplace and another one on the other side that led to the long hallway.
We took a left turn and crossed the large dining room which had my grandmother's beloved ceramic figures and manger set up on a countertop on the right, past the abandoned bird cage, under my dad's exercise bar, which was just an iron bar between the walls, all the way to the kitchen where my grandmother was sitting, drinking tea. She was beyond old, like the word 'old' didn't do her justice, she was a special kind of old like one of those massive 90's computers that you find in a library, the ones where you look at them and go 'holy shit that still works? How?'.
Of course, my grandmother barely worked, her brain lagged more than a government made website. Her hands were entirely made up of wrinkles, and she carried a ditzy open-mouthed smile. I sat down and we talked for a little bit, she couldn't remember my name, but I was used to that.
"Today Carla was asking me about Álvaro," my dad said to her very slowly and cheerfully. Something changed in her eyes at the mention of the name, like a camera flash "Álvaro… Álvaro is under… under the… the wood."
"Yes, yes, we had a funeral for him, empty casket," my dad explained.
Empty casket, I thought, good name for a metal band, sad thing to do.
After a while I started getting kind of bored and then I remembered my grandma probably had a bunch of good books in English which are very hard to get here, especially at an affordable price.
"Hey, can I go look for some books?" I asked my dad.
"Sure, look at the back near the living room, there may be some good ones there," he suggested.
I got up and crossed the dining room once again to head over to the bookcase which covered the entire wall. I remembered how my dad had shown me that a part of it was fake, and he'd removed it to reveal two swords. His father swore they were authentic Spanish swords, back when our country was a Spanish colony. When I was little, I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. Now I’m starting to wonder if it’s even true.
Sadly, the real books weren't that interesting, but then I remembered my dad had a bunch of books in his room, so I made my way there, going in through the left side door.
It was bigger than my own bedroom back home and clearly abandoned, with a desk that was overflowing with papers to my right and two bunk beds at the back, the covers in a state of disarray as if they'd left for school just a few hours ago. I wondered if my grandma asked for it to be kept exactly as it was when he moved out, as if keeping it the same would make it feel like he was still in the house with her.
I scoured the bookshelves against the wall, but they were all just old law textbooks, nothing I was too interested in reading. Then I turned around and spotted some cabinets near the ceiling, but they were too high for me to reach so I took the chair that was by the desk and stood on top of it. I opened them up and a cloud of dust exploded on my face, making me sneeze. I started shifting through the mess of books, throwing to the ground the ones that I wanted to keep: a tattered copy of 'Tom Sawyer,' a magazine from the 80's with the big hairstyles that would look cool on my bedroom wall, a record player instruction manual…
...and then I noticed at the very back a spine that looked like it had the word 'socialismo' written on it. I got excited, thinking this may have been one of my cousin's 'wrong books.' It was at the very back, so I had to get half of my body into the cabinet to get it and as I tried to pull it out my head bonked the top of the cabinet, and it came right off. I fell to the ground below me with a loud thud, followed by the wafting of papers.
"What was that?" I heard my dad's voice booming from the kitchen.
"Nothing!' I yelled back. My heart started beating out of my chest, I was scared he'd come in to scold me. I stood in anticipation, my stomach tying into knots, but several moments passed and he didn't come. I sighed with relief, my stomach untying itself as I quickly jumped down from the chair to study my crime scene. There was the wooden panel that my head bonked into but then there were all these papers around it, I figured they were just old certificates or something until I saw the name 'Álvaro' written on them in that typewriter font.
I picked up the paper and studied it closely. Testamento de Álvaro Cardenas, Will and testament of Álvaro Cardenas, le dejo a mis hermanos mi propiedad en La Pampa y toda la tierra que engloba, I leave to my brothers my property in La Pampa and all the land it encompasses.
I smiled sadly. Well, that was really nice of him, I thought, to leave them his land. I'd heard La Pampa was nice, it was out in the country.
And then it hit me. Why the fuck did he write a will if he disappeared? He didn't know he was going to die.
I looked back at the papers on the floor confused and then my eyes lasered in on the word 'petróleo,' 'oil.' I lunged for the paper. My eyes scoured the page and then I had to go back and read it again.
It was some kind of certificate for ownership of an oil plant. My grandparents owned and oil plant. I chuckled. No wonder why the house was so big.
Then my eyes reached the bottom of the page and my heart exploded. The plant was in La Pampa.
My cousin's property that he'd apparently left them was in La Pampa.
I looked at the two pieces of paper side by side and shook my head. That must be a coincidence, right? I mean maybe he was so involved in the socialist movement that he knew that something could go wrong so he left a will. Or maybe the oil plant was near his land but not right on it. Because if there was oil in his land, and he was a socialist then he probably didn't want to sell it... right? Which means they would've had to take him out of the picture.
Wait, fuck, no, that's crazy, I thought, that's fucking insane, that can't be what happened.
I kneeled and looked through the other pieces of paper… a birth certificate, some pamphlets, some documents with blocks of text I couldn't understand…
...and then I saw this tiny piece of paper. It was folded up six times, as if the person who wrote it wanted it to be as small as possible. I unfolded it and immediately recognized my father's handwriting, the loopy letters perfectly tilted like they'd taught him in school.
It looked like a poem.
To my cousin
Yesterday I saw you for the last time.
You were in a place you weren't supposed to be.
You were yelling at my mom.
Your face was red and tight.
Spit flew from your lips like tiny spears.
And then your voice ran out.
You fingers went to touch the place where my father knocked you with a pipe.
Did you feel the warm blood running down your fingers?
Was that the moment you knew you were dead?
I felt bad as I watched you collapse onto the floor.
But I understand.
That you should've listened
You should've done what was best
And now you live under me.
And late at night I can still hear you breathe.
I sat back on my heels, the paper shaking in my hands. I was still holding onto some rationality, maybe my dad just wanted to write a story, I thought, maybe he just used this to deal with his grief.
And then I heard my grandmother's voice, that ancient, thread thin voice: "Álvaro is under… underneath the… the wood."
And now you live under me.
I looked at the floorboards beneath me. They were old, dirty, darkened by time. I knew my dad would be furious, but I had to know, I just had to know.
So, I sneaked out of the room and looked out. The foyer was empty. There was a fireplace that was boarded up, but they still had a poker for it, one of those black metal sticks with the pointy end. I grabbed it and then ran back into the room.
I looked at the floorboards and hesitated. What if there was nothing underneath there? My dad would kill me.
Well, if there is he'll kill you, too, a voice inside me said.
I pulled my arms back and rammed the pointy stick into the floorboards. They came away with relative ease, they almost felt like fake wood. I kept ramming the poker into them, faster and faster, until it gave way and I almost fell into my dead cousin's arms, or what was left of them. They were white, completely white and covered in dirt, like the skeleton we had in science class. I felt vomit rise in my throat, but I swallowed hard and moved my poker towards his skull. I turned it slightly. There was a hole at the back.
"Shit!" I heard a voice behind me. I dropped the poker at the noise, and it fell near my cousin's ribcage. I turned around and there was my dad, his eyes popping out of his sockets, his hands at his side and bent like claws, "que lío," he said, what a mess.
I looked at him the way you would look at a stranger. I didn't recognize him anymore, not after what I knew. That wasn't my dad. That wasn't the person who'd raised me for nineteen years, the person who… who…
...I was going to put some nice memories here, but I can't come up with any. The first thing I thought about was how one time I was in the bathroom taking a shit and he came in while I was sitting there, pants around my ankles, completely exposed, all to tell me to flush it while I was sitting there to get rid of the smell… the smell.
No wonder why he cared so much about that. He was always obsessed with hiding, deleting, flushing out. I thought back to the man at the supermarket with shit in his pants. Would he have hit him over the head with a pipe?
I looked back at my dad, and I could see his lips moving, he was trying to explain something, but I didn't care, I knew I had no time, so I ran out the side door and bolted through the foyer.
I knew the elevator would take too long so I ran down the stairs. I could hear him calling after me, at first scared and then enraged. I just kept running.
I finally made it to the end of the staircase and skipped the last three steps, darted through the checkered foyer, and pulled the glass door, then went through the second one. I was almost to the shop next to the house, the one with the colorful scarves and tacky jewelry. I tried to reach it with my fingers and then I felt a hand grab my arm and pull me back. I looked at the monster that used to be my father, grabbing me, trying to overpower me.
"HELP ME! HELP ME I'M BEING KIDNAPPED!" I screamed in broad daylight until he clapped his hand over my mouth. My eyes darted to the people walking by. They all looked at me, then lowered their gaze and kept walking.
No one helped. I could hear my mom's maniacal laughter echoing in my head. No one helped.
Seven can be too much or too little, depending on what you’re talking about. Seven people dead sounds like a lot until you hear seven families died, seven villages, seven cities. The pain multiplies until you can’t feel anything at all.
Turns out seven minutes alone in my grandma’s kitchen was enough for me to reach the phone. I called Juan. But he was too late.
Clara Rogers is an Argentine author who has often been described as a 'loud mouth,' 'over analytical' and 'insufferable' person, and that's just from her peers! She's a senior at Lenguas Vivas where she studies to be an English teacher. She also teaches in her spare time. She likes Tarantino movies, Kerouac and pussy.