Authors: Demetria Martinez
A priest who had traveled with an Albuquerque delegation came back with bullet casings imprinted with the name of a U.S. city—I can’t
recall which one—where they had been manufactured. A month or so later the cleric gave away his possessions and returned to El Salvador for good, to work with the poor. These were not isolated incidents but formed what became a movement of sorts, of U.S. citizens taking an “option for the poor,” which liberation theologians said was God’s way of acting in history. These conversions could be traced to the stories of Salvadorans, stories about torture, dismemberment, hunger, sickness. I heard those stories and felt lucky. I had lost a mother to cancer and a father to infidelity. My losses were natural. Or so I thought then.
After a delegation member spoke one evening at San Rafael church, José Luis and I went outside and, sitting on the steps of the kiosk, watched fake gas lamps light up one by one. The setting sun added a bronze lacquer to the adobe walls of Old Town’s shops. Folding their wool blankets, Native Americans loaded up pickup trucks with cartons of jewelry. José Luis took my hand and pressed it to his lips. Then, he yawned
and stretched, reaching for the last rays of sun with forearms that had grown strong from washing dishes for endless afternoons. He took my hand again, traced the creases in my palm. For no reason I could discern, he looked at me and asked if he could call me María. I said of course, it’s just Spanish for Mary. He said no, Mary is English for María.
The few friends I had during that spell of my life quit calling; the word must have gotten out that Mary was in love. They knew I wouldn’t come out of the house, the house I drew with crayons, a house of primary colors I called love. The first time I fell in love, friends tried to tell me it was not real. To prove them wrong, I drew a keyhole on the front door and invited them to look through to the other side. See for yourselves, I said.
I can’t stop dreaming of marrying José Luis. It only makes sense. Marriage
would be a way to kill two birds with one stone; I could save him from being deported
help him begin, at last, a new life. I could make something useful out of my life—and give myself some structure and direction while I’m at it. Besides, I practically live with him as it is. We’re either hanging out at Soledad’s or going back and forth to Old Town. He’s getting pretty regular work now at the cantina. (He met some other refugees there, including a guy from his own village.) The plaza’s like a third home to him, after Soledad’s and after Salvador.
Heck, maybe we should just move in together. It would make things a lot easier. We wouldn’t have to spend half our lives in the truck. We could spend more time doing poetry translations, which is when he seems happiest. The problem is I don’t know if I could really bring myself to believe in
living together. Because I still believe in marriage—no matter how many tries it takes to get it right. Though most people my age, last I heard, tossed marriage out along with the flat-earth theory. It’s embarrassing. Once a Catholic always a Catholic. You rebel and rebel against the Church’s stupid rules, but the fact is, you wouldn’t bother to rebel if you didn’t believe in your heart of hearts that there was something worth rebelling against.
Even Soledad says if she ever gets married a fourth time, she’ll get one of her radical Jesuit priest friends to do the wedding. Besides, living together seems so ordinary nowadays. (And my life has already been too ordinary!) And Old Town is still an old-fashioned little village. If word got back to old Mr. Baca that the girl he was renting to was living in sin (across from the church at that), who knows what might happen? I still
worry about what people think—as if they didn’t have their own secret sins. It’s ridiculous.
(But if by some miracle José Luis and I do get married, I want to write my own vows. It’s dangerous for a couple to promise to stay married until they die. It’s better to vow to stay together until the marriage dies—and to do everything in their power to keep it alive. If you don’t think of marriage as a plant, fragile and in need of attention, then you’re asking for major trouble.)
I’d better get over to the cantina. José Luis will be off his shift, and we can get beers at this time for half price. We’ve gotten in the habit of going there in the afternoons. It’s really beautiful. Ancient wooden saints stand in niches in the adobe walls. Candles burn everywhere. We feel safe there. He told me that in the darkness, with the santos, no one can tell he’s an illegal. I told him no
human being on earth is illegal. He accused me of being romantic again and said, go tell that to the authorities.
One thing that worries me is he’s been drinking a lot lately.
Every afternoon last week he finished off something like five beers in a sitting. I told him it’s not good to drink that much, and he cut back to two beers or so when we went back the next day. I think he did it not because it’s good for him but to please me. I don’t like that. It’s all to the same end, but I don’t like the means. When I’m most centered I want him to put his needs above mine. That’s what I hate about love. Bit by bit you start to give things up. You become like a good parent. But I love him so it’s all worth it. I’ve never felt this way about anyone.
wish there were a way I could tell her. Say to María, you’re inventing José Luis. And your invention may be very different from who I really am. She sees my scars and thinks I was brave for having survived. She doesn’t understand that you don’t always need to be brave to survive the most brutal injuries. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), wounds
will often start healing even if you don’t want them to, even if you would rather die quietly in the corner of a cell. The body’s will to live sometimes is greater than that of mind or spirit.
I wish I could say to her, nothing I have done has required courage. When you’re being shot at, it doesn’t take courage to duck. Animals do as much. Me and my compañeros were being shot at so we dived for cover. And when we were not dodging bullets, we were asking questions about who made and sold the bullets, who bought them, and why they always end up in the hearts of poor people. We tried to figure these things out, to use our minds, our reason. Me and my seminary classmates are people of the book. Bible readers. Our cry has been, not by the gun but by the Word made flesh in action. How naive it sounds now. Like a dream of poets and
would-be mystics writing in blank notebooks in far away North America.
If there is courage to be found, maybe it is in the hearts of those who have headed for the mountains with guns of their own. The rebels feed the people, teach them to read and write. But they also teach them to defend what they have gained. That is the courage of choosing not to be a martyr. I thought I had made that choice, too, by coming here. And by day, when I am speaking to the other dishwashers about their situation, or helping volunteers translate human rights alerts, I know I am doing the right thing. Using words to educate people who have the power to influence the U.S. government. But at night, when I can’t sleep, the torture starts up. I think of friends sleeping under ceiba trees or on dirt floors in cement block cells. I am tormented, wondering if I did the right
thing. Or if I should be in my country, fighting. With words. Or with guns.
Sometimes the torment is so great that I turn to María for sleeping pills or sex or both. Sex to escape or at least to get me breathing again, to stop the cold shaking inside. And the next morning I have to live with my guilt at having used her. It wouldn’t be bad if she just loved sex. But she loves me.
Or perhaps what she really loves is the idea of me. A refugee, a dissident, spokesman for a cause she knows little about, ignorance she seems to have made her peace with. She is trying to separate me in her own mind from my history. She thinks by loving the “real” me, the me before the war, she can make my memories of the war end. It is so American. The belief that people can be remade from scratch in the promised land, leaving the old self behind. I really
think she believes if she loves me enough the scars inside me will disappear.
And in my own imperfect way, I love her too. I love her for believing that I can be whole, for loving me even if I exist largely as a figment of her imagination. My María with a heart as big as this house.
She makes a big deal out of the fact that I read the Bible. She says she has “fallen away” from the spiritual life. I hate it when she talks about me as if I were half god. She won’t give me the gift of flaws. And this is what worries me the most, that she wants me to save her. She talks about how beautiful our love is, how wonderful it would be if we got a little house in the Valley and brought my friends and relatives up from Salvador. Any woman who talks that way a month into a relationship wants to be saved—from what, I don’t know.
If I knew, I could at least offer advice. But María doesn’t want advice. She wants a whole new self. It’s too great a burden for me. It’s all I can do to keep my own mind in one piece, far from the knowledge that I might never return home. How do I say these things to her? Do I just let things continue until they fall apart? The warmth of her flesh is all I have to make me forget. But alcohol does the same thing. Am I using her? Or is she using me each time she looks at me and loves what is not there?
Until now, I haven’t had the nerve to translate one line from José Luis’s journal. I should have just buried it. I might have saved myself the pain of having to open it up to identify the remains. Before he went away he asked me to keep his notebook because he feared the authorities could
use it against him if they found it on him and pieced together his true identity. Now, all these years later, my life has come to a halt because of words written long ago by a man whose name I didn’t even know. One new testament is all it takes to warp time, to call into question the neatly bound volume of trivia and revelations you thought was your history. He was right to leave his notebook with me. It has not betrayed his identity. But it is betraying mine, handing it over to be tried before a court in which I am the jury and judge.
I said earlier that I have forgiven myself; it is not true. I look back and see a woman who was naive and sad, who looked to a refugee to save her from fear—the kind of fear that destroys, cell by cell, because it rampages undetected, unnamed. No, I haven’t forgiven myself for being disappeared from myself any more than I have forgiven him. You see, there’s more to the story than I have let on, more than I ever intended to let on. All these years I have told myself that he returned to El Salvador, that the authorities found him and
killed him; this was what happened to most Salvadorans who got deported. But the truth is, I don’t know what happened to him.
And all these years I have avoided calling José Luis by his true name, desaparecido, disappeared one. My altar should have a photograph of him, the date of his birth, and a question mark for the date of his death inscribed below his face. But I’m a coward. I couldn’t bring myself to draw a question mark much less live with it day in and day out. But God was wiser. He carved that question mark into my heart and kept watch over it until I could wake up and cry out. José Luis disappeared. He defied the ordinary scheme of things in which one is either dead or alive and I cannot forgive him for this. And I cannot forgive myself for loving him now, twenty years too late, in ways I could not love him when I looked to him to swim out in the dark waters of my life and save me.
I have not laid hands on this story for six days, have not gotten near the paper. It has taken me
this long to move beyond the resentment I feel at having told you the part of the story I had intended to keep to myself. Resentment, because in telling you—whoever you are—I opened the wound. I told myself the part of the story I had hoped to keep from myself, the disappeared part. But the unspoken words were turning into hooks, they were caught in my throat. Once a story is begun the whole thing must be told or it kills. If the teller does not let it out, the tale will seize her, and she will live it over and over without end, all the while believing she is doing something new. The Great Circle will come to represent not life but stagnation, repetition; she will die on a catherine wheel of her own making.
Things began to happen. There were times he didn’t call, times he didn’t say I love you, nonevents that hurt in little ways, like paper cuts, but that added up. It could be these nonevents had happened all along, the normal ups and downs of relationships. But at a certain point, I began to perceive that he was pulling away from me and
thinking about other things. And fear ate at my heart like battery acid. But it’s very likely that I only imagined him pulling away, imagined the whole thing. You see, the fear I am best at is always based upon a myth. It could be that the whole time José Luis was growing closer to me. He used to clip flowers from Soledad’s garden and give them to me, stems wrapped in foil, one of hundreds of small ways he showed he cared. But all these acts took place against a backdrop of flight—the assumption that to survive one sometimes must flee all that is loved. This is what terrified me. His body was branded with the equation,
love equals flight