It was almost dark by the time Ana called Liliana in for dinner. She was so hungry she couldn’t think, but she didn’t savor it, nor did she stick around for seconds. Her day had been full of interviews and University tours and flecks of dried paint stuck beneath her fingernails—the firsts glints of her future. Though as much as she tried, she just couldn’t make herself long for it the way she did the past, the way she did her mother’s past.
When she was finally alone in her room, in her mother’s old room, she ran a hot bath and let the steam float out through the open window above the sink, mingling with the cool air blowing in off the ocean and draping a chill over her bare skin. She stepped into the tub, letting the water level rise slowly up her legs and to her waist before she finally let herself sink all the way in—save for her hands, still dry, and holding open her mother’s journal as she read.
Trini leaned against the window and was talking about going to beauty school. I was lying on my bed trying to convince her to go to the disco. She stood up. I’m serious, she said, you’re going to University and where am I going. I laughed, to the disco. I managed to convince her to come with me. Besides she owes me.
He was there at the club. He saw me come in and he watched me walk to the bar. Trini spotted Adrian sitting and talking to the bartender. She ran in his direction, placed a hand on his shoulder, and climbed into his lap. There was a small alcove, dark, with only one table. I sat down and Ben came around the corner. He kissed me on the cheek and I thought of Trini and Adrian, kissing, out in the open, free. What’s with the face, he asked. Tired of sneaking around, I said. He reminded me that it was my decision and I just nodded. He took my face in both hands. They were warm and smelled like citrus. Come to dinner, he said. I bit my lip and asked with who. He said his parents. He wanted me to meet them; he wanted them to meet me.
I shook my head and said I didn’t know. I’ll pick you up after class tomorrow night. I nodded. We talked some more, kissed some more; pretended we were the real thing. Ben walked away first. I counted to fifteen and then followed. I stepped into the light and at the edge of the dance floor Manuel and his brother Raul were watching me. When Manuel saw me he just looked down, then turned on his heel and walked across the room. But Raul kept his eyes fixed on me, burning. He rubbed his hands together, pursed his lips, and then waved a chiding finger at me. I scowled back at him and met Trini at the bar.
The next night Ben picked me up after a late class. His parents lived in a nice part of town in a modern house with large windows. The lights were on when we pulled up and his father was opening the door before we even got out of the car. He was a small man with a small salt and pepper beard. His eyes were squinting behind large black bifocals and he was smiling. Ben’s mother was even smaller. Her limbs and hair were wispy and frail but she had large eyes that stretched from one side of her face to the other. Binyamin, they breathed in unison. Binyamin. I had always known he was Jewish. It had always been and would always be a problem in our relationship. My parents were Catholic, devout Catholics and they would never allow it. And I still lived in their house. I had to live by their rules. But just because I could never marry a Jew doesn’t mean I can’t be in love with one.
We ate with Ben, thankfully, being the focus of conversation. But when the table was cleared Ben’s father turned to me and asked me how I was liking University. I told him I loved it. Ben chimed in, telling them we met in a News Writing class. He left out the part about him being the Teacher’s Assistant. Ben’s father placed his forearms on the table. You’re a journalist too, he said. I nodded. A journalist, he said again, brave, brave like Binyamin. Brave like you, Ben whispered. Were you a journalist, I asked. Ben’s father closed his eyes for a moment and then smiled. I was, he said, writing all the way up until that moment we were picked up. Ben’s mother stood up and cleared the plates. A moment later I could hear as she dropped the glass into the steel sink.
Ben stood from his chair and grabbed my sweater. His parents followed us to the door. In the car I asked Ben about what his father had said, about being picked up. He stared straight ahead. Finally I saw him start to open his mouth in the corner of my eye. The Nazis, he said, they were picked up by the Nazis. I lost my train of thought and I felt all of the air leave my lungs. Your parents were in a concentration camp, I asked, they lived through the holocaust? Ben nodded. He clutched my hand and rested it on his knee. They met in the camp, he said, they saw each other from a distance, they never spoke a word to each other, but when they were freed, they were freed together. And just like that, I asked. Just like that, he said and nodded.
Ben dropped me off back at the University and I waited in his car for the bus to take me home. He had crawled into the passenger seat with me. His hand was sliding up my back and my mouth was on his throat. He’s right, he said between breaths. Who, I asked. My father, he’s right, about us being brave, he said, something’s happening. Something, what do you mean, I said. He told me to come out tomorrow night, that he’d be waiting, that we’d talk then. The bus rounded the corner and I pulled my sweater back on before grabbing my bag. Then Ben walked me to the stop, the warm pull of his lips still lingering against my forehead as I drew away.
He hadn’t noticed the mirrored exhales of their rough scraping, the low hum of the rhythm that had slipped over them until he stopped to rest, his heavy arms falling limp at his sides.
Liliana was perched behind him, her hair loose and flying and the sharp end of her tool reaching for the filigreed molding circling the inside of the porch. Sunlight passing through the thick hanging vines that Diego had yet to strip from the face of the house cast swirling shadows on her arms, along her right thigh, and up the soft slant of her neck. His eyes were pulled to the smoky shapes along her skin and he watched them bleed into the soft hollow of her collarbone as she lowered herself down from the graying railing and back onto the porch.
His gaze on her seemed to go unnoticed until, instead of moving on to the next section of molding she stopped there, right in front of him, her eyes pouring something fierce into his.
“We’ll be able to start re-painting soon,” Diego said, hoping the sound of his own voice would draw him back into his body.
Liliana brought her forearm to her brow, the soft hairs along it speckled white, and wiped the sweat along her hairline. A few strands stuck dark like wisps of smoke curling along her jaw but she didn’t seem to notice.
“If it doesn’t rain,” Diego added, his words hanging there, waiting to be mingled with hers.
She leaned against one of the columns reaching for a bottle of water, the stray dew slipping down her neck as she drank, a thin moist trail cutting through the dust and flakes of paint that had settled on her skin.
“You said you moved here when you were fourteen?”
“Yeah, my dad and I. He had been working at the vineyard for about a year and we moved here when he took over the grounds position.”
Liliana glanced down at the thin wooden posts, their backs bent beneath the weight of the vines.
“Was the vineyard bigger back then? Is that all he looked after?” she asked.
Diego glanced up toward the road, his memory filling in the scant backdrop with soft leaves the size of his fourteen-year-old palms, lush and buzzing with insects.
“When we first moved here you could see it from the road and it stretched almost all the way down the beach. There were ten guys, maybe more, who worked here every day.”
“And now there’s just the two of you?”
Diego nodded, trying not to think about the day they’d ripped them down, about the roots limp and starving, and the deep cracks splintered across the soil that took months of hard rain to finally fill in.
“During the war, I guess it was just too much to maintain. Some guys quit and ran off to join the rebel groups, I’m sure a few were killed, and they let the rest go. No one was buying anything anyway. Then, finally one winter, when all the vines were dormant, they cut most of them down. They left one acre for personal use but by then your grandparents were getting older and they knew they couldn’t take care of the vineyard on their own so my father and I stayed.”
“How long ago?”
“Five, maybe six years ago?”
“I don’t remember it, what it looked like back then. I think I was only three years old the last time I was here. But I just wish I could remember.”
“Do you remember anything?” Diego asked. “Do you remember leaving?”
“It’s hard to know for sure. Sometimes I can’t tell if something is a memory or if I just read it somewhere or saw it on the news or if it’s something my father or Ana told me.”
“It’s probably better that way, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know, maybe. But it’s strange to feel like your memories aren’t really yours, like they really belong to someone else. Sometimes it makes me feel like…” She broke off, exhale stalled within her lungs, “like I’m not real.”
Her shoulders rolled forward and her hands gripped her knees. Diego watched her face as something pale flushed across her cheeks.
She seemed to feel his eyes on her and she spoke again, quickly terminating his evaluation of her. “I do have this dream, though,” she said. “There’s a fire, people are running. I can hear them yelling.” Her eyes fluxed to something grave, something dark.
“Like one of the riots?” Diego said.
“I’m not sure. But I know it’s a real memory. I’ve never seen anything like it before. I know I was there.”
“I’m sorry,” Diego said.
Liliana watched his face, her eyebrows cinched low.
“I mean that you were there, that that happened to you.”
“I’m sure you’ve seen worse,” she said.
The air suddenly seemed to recoil from Diego’s lungs. While Liliana’s memories trickled in through the safety of her dreams, his came in a frantic pounding wave, all at once, bitter and stinging, and if he let himself get caught in them, in the torrential swelling that knocked him breathless, they would pound him and tear him and break him into a million pieces. But even as the word fire had perched itself on the edge of Liliana’s lips, Diego was already spinning back there to that corner store on Belgrano, his knees tucked into his chest behind a magazine display as the gasoline caught fire, the flames licking across the linoleum floor as they reached for him with trembling blue arms.
A member of one of the rebel groups had recognized a soldier in civilian clothes as he made his way into the store to buy a pack of cigarettes. Diego, eleven at the time, had made the mistake of walking in behind him as his father waited across the street for his son to carry out the brown paper bag the store clerk had refused to sell him any more of that day. The line to the register wound back to the front of the store and Diego was leaning against the glass window that trembled every time someone flushed the toilet in the nearby bathroom.
There was a loud crack, like lightening striking inside of a tin can, and Diego, hands reaching for his ears, fell to the floor. The tile seemed to shudder as people rushed passed him, the force of their panic steeling him to the ground. By the time he could move again, his limbs were already racked with fever, the tiny hairs along his arms turning to ash, his skin flushing a translucent pink.
He felt the hot glass of the storefront window as it gave way, the glowing pieces spilling passed him as someone outside tried to force their way through. He felt hands, cold and dank, wedge themselves under his arms and then he was being pulled from the heat, the smoke swirling fervently around his legs and ankles as it trailed out after him.
The heat seemed to linger, but Diego realized it was just Liliana’s eyes on him, waiting for him to speak. He blinked, trying to remember what she’d said, trying to think of what to say next when he noticed something pinched between her thumb and forefinger. She twisted it there and he could see the corner of it curling from the humidity. She noticed the trajectory of his gaze and glanced down at it.
“What’s that?” he said, though he knew it was none of his business. But he was desperate to reignite the conversation and in a new, less painful direction.
Liliana handed him the slip of paper and he grabbed each end, unraveling it.
“Do you know where this is?” she said.
Diego read the address. He knew where it was, el Molino, the mill. His parents had played there once. It was a bar underground in the middle of the flatlands district. He looked at Liliana and nodded.
“Could you take me?”
He wanted to say no, to tell her he didn’t go out that way anymore. To tell her that his mother had almost died there and his father was almost murdered. He wanted to tell her how he had watched it all from between the legs of a barstool and that it was dangerous, too dangerous for somebody like her.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Where did you get this?”
“A girl I met at the University. She said the journalism students meet there sometimes.”
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Diego asked, though it clearly was. The girl who gave Liliana the address had even noted the narrow cement staircase that led to the door and the sliding window where they were to ask for her by name.
Liliana nodded. “Why is it…in a bad part of town or something?”
“Sort of,” Diego said.
But there was something in her eyes, glinting there like hope and he couldn’t tell her no.
“Ok,” he said, “I’ll go with you.”