They came upon a tall iron gate, brass vines winding into the rusted buds of steel roses, their sharp petals lining the door like barbed wire. There was a chain fastened around the opening but it burned orange beneath the neon glow of the nearby corner store and Diego snapped the rusting links with one hand, the thin skin settling into ash beside their feet. They traipsed over the cobblestone floor of the courtyard, Liliana wincing as her hip grated against the abandoned rod iron chairs that were strewn across the patio. There were light bulbs, their underside’s burned black, hanging above their heads and she tried to imagine what the space would have looked like beneath the twinkling rose colored lights, what it would have looked like when her mother was there with Trini. The doorframe was bare, the hinges jutting out from the wall like jagged brass teeth.
Diego led Liliana through a shallow pile of leaves, the debris crackling beneath their feet and skittering across the floor. The room was dark, moonlight barely reaching the center of the dance floor and the changing streetlight outside flooding the window with pricks of green, then red. But it was enough light to see the bones of the place, the bare walls and rafters protruding from the darkness, frail like rotting stems.
A twig snapped beneath Liliana’s feet and a soft beating swooped down from the ceiling, the small grey bird dizzying out in a corner as it tried to find a way out. Liliana pressed a palm to the drumming in her chest.
“Well, this is it.”
Diego let go of Liliana’s hand, briefly, as he made his way over to the bar, disappearing into a doorway.
“No lights,” he said when he reemerged, “figures.”
But Liliana didn’t need the light to find what she was looking for. Her eyes leapt from the bar, across the dance floor and to a low brick wall that gave way to a line of tall wooden tables. She stepped out into the darkness, abandoning the milky pool of light at her feet and slid into the small corner booth hidden behind the wall. The plastic seat surprisingly tepid against her legs, as if another body had just been there, sent her senses reeling.
“This is where she used to sit,” Liliana said as Diego slid in next to her.
Diego stared at her, and Liliana could see the uncertainty in his eyes, the confusion at how she could know such a thing. But then he blinked, seeming to abandon rationality for a moment and didn’t say a word.
“Why did they close this place down?”
“They closed a lot of clubs down, a lot of bars, movie theatres, opera houses.”
“They didn’t just get rid of the people who they thought were too subversive, but they also got rid of the places they liked to go. The arts were an easy target. There’s nothing more liberal.”
Liliana stared at him, brow furrowed. “But I don’t…”
“The thing you have to understand is that there were no rules. Their tactics didn’t make sense because no one was regulating them. It was just chaos. Like a storm—you can’t ever predict its trajectory because it doesn’t have one. That’s why when it’s over there are some buildings still standing and some that aren’t.” Then the dryness in his voice, the inflection he used to recall facts as though he were stripping the words from the pages of a newspaper, suddenly evaporated. “I remember when I was almost ten, my mother took me to see this new animated movie from overseas. I was so excited because it was the first weekend that it was showing and I was going to see it before all of my friends did. They hadn’t closed down any of the bars or clubs yet so my parents were still making good money. When we got there, the theatre was packed and the only seats left were down at the very front.
“I remember I was leaning into my mother’s lap and resting my head on her purse, waiting for the lights to go down. But when they did, there was yelling coming from the theatre next to us, people screaming. We could hear it through the walls. And then there were gunshots, the thin wall between the two theatres barely muffling the sound. People started running, thinking the shots were coming from someone just a few rows below them. My mother picked me up by the arm and dragged me through the exit and around the front to the parking lot. Three people were killed. The next day it wasn’t on the news, it wasn’t even in the newspaper.”
Diego rose to his feet, one hand gripping his neck.
“We never knew who was responsible. We suspected the military, since it wasn’t on the news, but really it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter whose side you were on or which side was winning. We were all afraid. Every day we were afraid of dying.”
Diego reached for Liliana’s hand, catching her thumb and gently pulling her to her feet.
“And then they took all of this away from us.”
He nodded toward the building’s empty carcass rising up around them. Then his hand slid onto Liliana’s waist, his palm resting against the arch of her hip, while the other curled into a fist, Liliana’s fingers hidden beneath his own.
“No movies, no art, no music.”
He bent his knees and Liliana leaned into his chest.
“And my mother who was made for Flamenco…she wasn’t even allowed to dance.”
Then his cheek grazed her ear and they began to sway, his fingers moving from her hand to her forearm, sliding across the invisible frets along her skin. Colors unfurled in bold leaps and splashes across the bare walls and light began to swell in the dark rafters overhead as Liliana let herself slip into the fear of that moment, wondering what it would have meant during the war for them to be standing like this, so close, swaying, dancing. What would it have felt like to not be free in your own body?
She felt Diego’s jaw resting against her ear and then he whispered, “I didn’t think I would ever be happy again.”