Exile

By CLARA OBLIGADO
Translated by RACHEL BALLENGER

 

On December 5, 1976, I arrived in Madrid from Argentina. I flew Iberia airlines, caught the plane in Montevideo because I was afraid of the disappearances happening at the border. I left wearing summer clothes, as if I were a tourist heading for the beaches of Uruguay, then, two or three days later, landed in Madrid, where it was winter. My father and sister saw me off. It took me six years—the years of the dictatorship—to return.

 

On December 5, 1976, I arrived in Madrid, frozen to my core. I’d come from summer, and my first impression of the city was a melancholy atmosphere and the utter lack of sunshine. I had a cousin here who’d come a few months earlier on a scholarship. She didn’t pick me up at the airport, and later stopped having me over because she considered me dangerous. I decided it wasn’t worth maintaining a relationship with someone who only worried about her own safety, even when she was thousands of miles from danger.

 

I arrived in Madrid, and since I knew no one, the taxi driver recommended the Hotel Monaco, the same place that he—probably—brought every Latin American woman who arrived clueless, like me, and who, according to him, needed a man to provide for her. There was a plaster cupid hanging over the entrance, garish green lights inside the reception, and, in the room, an en suite separated by satin curtains. Madrid was a sad city. Night watchmen guarded the houses. The colors were all gloomy. This was before they celebrated the general elections. Franco was dead, but Francoism was alive and well. I can’t remember what I dreamed that night. The next day, in the bar, I met a man who offered me a job at his real estate agency. He had on an old-fashioned blue suit, wore a very fine mustache that accentuated his moist, fleshy lips. I thought the apartments he sold were ugly. Dated furniture, shabby wallpaper. Everything about Madrid seemed frozen in time.

Because of exile, I’ve been afraid to change my life. Just like the taxi driver prophesied, I became the real estate agent’s lover. He ended up being a good man, and years later gave me an apartment. And here I am, still working in his office, waiting to retire.

 

I flew Iberia. The man sitting next to me seemed nervous, so we chatted a little. He was sixty-something, a Galician. He had left his country and now, forty-five years later, was returning to his village to see his mother again.

            “Does she know you’re coming?”
            “No,” the man said. “I want to give her a surprise.”
            “Surprise? You’re gonna give her a heart attack.”

 

I caught the plane in Montevideo. I remember that my sister pressed her hand to the glass separating us, and I lay mine over hers, this time with a V for victory to tell her that I made it through passport control. Once I boarded the plane, a voice announced that we were laying over in Ezeiza. I’m sure I went white. I’d be in Argentina again. It never occurred to me that a plane headed for Spain might backtrack. As we landed, I saw that the airport was surrounded by military. They made me deplane. I was the only one. As they carried me away with my head in a bag, I saw a final image of that plane ripping through the sky. I got back on another plane when they threw me, already half dead, in the river.

 

I arrived in Spain as if I were a tourist, dressed for summer, but we were in the dead of winter, and those first days I carried around the desolate certainty that I knew no one. Later, many people appeared in my same situation, then political leaders from organizations in which we had been active. They only added to my growing skepticism. We exiled Argentines weren’t as lucky as the Chileans. They were communists or socialists, something which they understood here. Whereas many of us had attached ourselves to the phenomenon called Perón. “Perón?” the Spaniards said to us. “Ah, right. Great president. Good friend of Franco.” So there was total confusion. Or no confusion at all.

One of the people I met during those strange days offered me a job at a radio station in Tanzania. I speak good English, and it was the same to me to live in Madrid, Tanzania, China…. Madrid was boring then, a provincial capital where they arrested you for kissing in the park. I accepted the offer. Anything at all before I ended up working, for example, in a real estate company.

 

I arrived in Madrid. Three days later, I left the Hotel Monaco and took a train to Barcelona to inform a friend about her brother’s disappearance. I didn’t want to do it over the phone. Barcelona was a freer city than Madrid, full of exiles. The Uruguayans arrived first, then the Chileans, and finally us. The people I knew there were older, many of them intellectuals or writers who had developed strong ties with the Catalans. And there were others—they’d arrived much earlier—who spoke of exile as if it gave them prestige.

When I gave her the news, my friend didn’t cry, but turned away from me and stood for a while looking out the window. Later, she offered to let me stay at her house. “You’ll find something here,” she insisted. She knew important people. But it was the same to me. My career was finished, and I wasn’t worried about my future. The only future I wanted was return. Return. And so I returned to Madrid, without realizing that I was returning to nowhere.

 

I brought less than twenty pounds of luggage, only summer clothes in case they searched me at the border. My plan was to stay two or three days in Uruguay, then fly to Madrid on Iberia. The first night I was pretty calm. I got in bed early, made a list of things I had to do when I got to Spain. I slept. But the second night I was nervous, so I went down to the hotel bar. I almost never drink, but the situation demanded alcohol, and by midnight I was pretty tipsy. They put on music, and a man around my age asked me to dance. “Why not? Nothing worse can happen to me than what’s happening already,” I said, and I let him put his arms around me. By two we were in bed together. Maybe it was the mix of fear and desire, I don’t know, but I’ve never had such passionate sex. My friend must have felt something similar, because in the morning he asked me to come along on his trip. He was also escaping what was happening in Argentina, but he preferred to hide out on the continent. That made sense to me. I told my father and sister that I’d changed my plans. They were furious at me, and with good reason. I’d make a mess leaving like this, and my ticket was paid for. But fear and desire wouldn’t let me think. I grabbed my bag of summer clothes and boarded a bus that took us to Brazil. Although less so than Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay were still dangerous then. The three countries had a pact to help each other catch or assassinate “subversives.” Operation Condor. Brazil wasn’t relaxed, and neither was Alejandro—his name was Alejandro—because then, in those countries, just being young or on the left might cost you your head. Alejandro was leftist, like me. He studied archeology. We both had the call of adventure in our blood. We got along well because of that. And, yes, because of the sex. We continued north together—me with my summer clothes because those months I couldn’t afford anything but food and the boarding house where we occasionally showered—worked doing what we could, and practiced the language.

I spent two years in Tanzania, and I didn’t regret it. The radio station had very little work for me. The people there lived on nothing. I really liked them. Tanzania was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. In that poor society, one of the world’s poorest, I learned another way of living. We see what we’re ready to see, I told myself while I walked along the sandy coast, while I traveled through the Rift Valley. Would I have believed, just months before, that a place like this existed? Often, I was the only white person around, and the Tanzanians stared at me like I was Martian. We aren’t born with foreign status, and when it’s applied, our skin becomes a suffocating jacket.

I lived in Dar es Salaam, where I ran a morning radio show, and came to learn that I would never develop real ties to the country unless I learned Swahili. I love learning languages. I know English, French, and German. But, frankly, Swahili seemed like too much.

 

I arrived in Madrid. It was December 5, 1976. The cold was harrowing. I’d hoped a cousin who lived here would come get me at the airport, but no one was waiting when I arrived. It’s hard to arrive in a new country alone to begin a life there, but that first day it was like I was anesthetized. A taxi driver brought me to a hotel. I remember that it was called the Hotel Monaco, and that I hated the look of it. It looked like a pay-by-the-hour motel. There was even a cupid hanging over the reception desk, I think, and green lighting inside. I decided not to go in. Instead, I dragged my suitcase down the street to a boarding house. It was dirty, but very cheap. It had a long hallway, bleak rooms, a greasy kitchen. The owner only bothered herself with the male guests. I couldn’t understand anyone. What I mean is I couldn’t understand the peninsular Spanish, and I hated their brusque manner. No one paid attention to you. They acted like you were invisible. Madrilenians say they’re hospitable, but it isn’t true. Maybe I never met the right people. All I know is that, in ten years, not one person invited me to their house.

I found work in a bar, serving drinks until sunrise. The regulars were as foreign to me as if they had been from, say, Tanzania. I chose exile in Madrid because the recent switch to democracy made Spain seem like a progressive country, but what I found there had nothing to do with my expectations. In the boarding house, I met a Colombian, Jorge, who had studied literature, like me. He seemed to have something special about him. He wore a ring with a huge red stone, and bright, lacy shirts. He was the son of a prostitute in Barranquilla and had grown up in a brothel. Then he chose that career himself, because the late hours suited his schedule. He had two virtues: he was an excellent writer, and he adored me. He was very into me, but it was impossible for me to feel the same about him. Jorge admired my political past. My exile impressed him. He wanted to turn me into Rosa Luxemburg, someone like that, and devoted himself to reading me books on economic theory. I almost died of boredom. One day, he told me that he’d won a scholarship to do a doctorate in London and asked if I’d go with him. I said, “Sure, great.” Madrid was a depressing city. The right-wing extremists had just murdered some labor attorneys and the situation was unstable. Also, it was the same to me to live here or in Tanzania or China, and maybe a trip would lessen the pain of exile. I wrote my family to tell them. Thus far, my only career advancement to speak of was that I had left the bar and started cleaning houses. We went to London, a city that, in the late seventies, was exploding with energy. Jorge found us a cheap basement apartment, which we shared with other Colombians. He wanted to be a writer. He spent days buried in his novel, and then at night I read some pages. But I didn’t even know who I was, so I couldn’t get excited about it.

Living with the Colombians, I became foreign twice over. I don’t know if we Argentines are more similar to the British than to Colombians, but I felt drained. The disorder, the constant debauchery, the screams in the middle of the night tired me out. I hardly drink. I have a limited tolerance for alcohol. On top of that, we could barely afford heating, and we were freezing. Jorge even more than me. In that climate, the Colombians shivered all day long. One weekend, it rained so much that Jorge and I stayed in bed, and he read me all of The Autumn of the Patriarch. It’s one of my best memories from that time, his soft voice, my ear on his chest.

One day, I was fed up with all of it. I packed my bag, left Jorge a letter that didn’t offer much explanation. It was because my reasons didn’t even sound convincing to me. But I behaved badly. He, on the other hand, did not. Rather than get angry, he sent a beautiful goodbye letter. I wrote him back. I said I couldn’t stand it, I wanted to come home. Home. But where was home?

 

I know they called it the “Golden Exile” because we were in Europe, and Argentines think that in Europe life’s perfect. Well, it wasn’t. I knew people who celebrated Christmas morning in their country’s time zone. I met exiles who took advantage of people worse off than they were. I ran into people I’d known before who now looked twenty years older, and important intellectuals who ended up nobodies. I knew people who woke up screaming every night, people who had lost their entire families. I knew a girl who was raped in prison and gave birth to a son, and whose boyfriend, another a victim of torture, killed the child by kicking him to death.

From another angle, you could say that no one knew anyone, that, out of context, we had all become someone else. But I don’t know anyone for whom exile was golden.

When you arrive in a country where you don’t know anyone, your life can change at the turn of a corner. I arrived in Madrid on December 5. It was unbearably cold. The trees twinkled with tiny, festive lights that, to this day, depress me. The taxi driver who brought me downtown gave his opinion that we Latin American women needed older men to protect us, then dropped me at a hotel that looked like it was used for hook-ups. I think it was called the Hotel Monaco. I almost gave in to my temptation to enter, but I thought it’d be expensive, and I had little money. I dragged my suitcase to the corner instead, stood there wondering what to do. I went into a bar, called the only number I’d been given back in Buenos Aires. A nice woman answered the phone. When I told her I didn’t know where to go, she said come to her house. Her name was Carmen. She had lots of friends who wore old-fashioned suits. One of them, a man with a fine mustache and fleshy lips, offered me work at his real estate company. I don’t know why I told him no. Maybe because he gawked at me like I was a roasted chicken. But it upset Carmen, who wanted to bestow her charity upon me, so long as I took what I was offered. I think Carmen’s compulsive charity was based in her considering me a little inferior.

The truth is, I preferred to go hungry rather than work for those lips. Now that our happy coexistence was spoiled, I had to leave. By then I had met some other Argentines, and we’d started doing surveys. Later, we sold craftwork in El Rastro market, and I was awarded a scholarship to pursue a doctorate. My department’s building had a Catholic chapel with a daily schedule for mass. In my classroom, there was a death mask of Rubén Darío inside a crystal urn.

I met a Sandinista in one of my classes who fell asleep during lectures, and a Colombian, Jorge, whom I went out with a couple of times. Jorge liked me, but I was scared to care about anyone. An entire country had disappeared from me. I wasn’t eager to risk my heart. So when Jorge asked me to go with him to London, I told him no, better I stay here, where I was finally starting to meet people. The nudity started around then. Suddenly, breasts appeared everywhere, on television, in magazines. I even saw a production of Fuenteovejuna in which the actors performed topless. It seemed like Argentina had entered the tunnel that Spain had exited. There were demonstrations everywhere. Madrid took on a festive air. I rented an apartment with a group of friends from my university. We lived together for years. One of them introduced me to the lead editor of a magazine where I’ve worked ever since. I don’t have a husband, but I don’t mind. My salary is good. I like what I do. Though, naturally, there’s a glass ceiling for foreigners.

 

After my father and sister saw me off, they planned to go back to Buenos Aries but were detained in passport control. My father is a lawyer, and he protested at first. When he saw that things were turning ugly, he shut up. Two days later, the Uruguayans handed them over to the Argentine authorities. They beat my sister in front of my father. Later, when they let them go, an officer told her: “Hey, little girl, you’re a fucking idiot. Be careful. Next time we see you, you’re dead.”

My sister left the country. She petitioned for asylum in Sweden. She took her children, who were still young then, and today hardly speak Spanish. I found out about what had happened while I was in Madrid, but I couldn’t go back. As far as going to Sweden to meet up with them, the idea never crossed my mind. Those of us who went to Spain were used to being treated with indifference, in a country where there wasn’t even political refuge. We accepted our precarious destinies and did what we could with our lives.

When I visit them now, my niece and nephew look at me like I’m a part of some distant past, a curiosity their mother likes to talk about. The boy is my godson, but it’s like he doesn’t know me. That makes me sorry, because I don’t have my own children, and I would have loved to study literature. My sister was given assistance from the Swedish government. They gave her a house, a job, free school for the children. But she never got used to it there.

Alejandro and I left Brazil and settled in Mexico. We crossed almost all of Latin America, by every means possible, in whatever form of transport, from Argentina to Uruguay, from Uruguay to Brazil, then Central America—Guatemala, Belize—and finally Mexico. There were many exiles there, and it turned out to be easy to find work. It’d been two years since we left Argentina, and we arrived in the country exhausted and hungry. The day we arrived, we were invited to a goodbye party for a Chilean man who had decided to move to Europe and was raffling off all his belongings. You bought a number and were as likely to win a pair of underwear as the dining room table. We won a mattress. We put it in our room where we were staying. Alejandro found work, went back to school. To him, whose greatest archeological discovery thus far had been the cookies his aunt made in Córdoba, Mexico was magical. I started my doctorate, organized a writing workshop. We soon separated. Our relationship had weathered too much chaos to withstand the routine day-by-day. Alejandro cheated on me; I cheated on Alejandro. We were both determined to hurt each other by every means possible, and we stabbed where the meat was tender. When he left, I kept the mattress. I cried and cried, clinging to the only thing in this world that was mine.

When my father and sister reached the border, a friend was waiting at the port to tell them they needed to hide. That was when my sister was given the terrible news: They had gone into her house, taken her husband and son. Her son was my godson. He wasn’t even a year old. My sister didn’t want to leave the country like everyone said she should. Instead, she threw herself into looking for them. Sometimes she went out clutching her daughter’s hand. Sometimes she went out alone like a madwoman. Sometimes, they tell me, she shut herself up in her house, howling like an animal. She went to every government office and ran into women who were experiencing the same thing. Because they came up with nothing, because they were given no explanations, they began to march every Thursday around the pyramid in the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the presidential palace. Some wore diapers on their heads. Others went just to show their support. Little by little, they became a crowd. My nephew never reappeared. I still think about him a lot. He’d be almost thirty now. Some family with military connections must have raised him. If we met in the street, we wouldn’t know each other.

I’ve asked myself many times if the mother of the Gallegan who traveled next to me on that Iberia flight to Madrid back in 1976 recognized her son. Did he recognize the village he left behind? Village life, the smell of fire, the color of the sky through the trees? Was there a chance that his mother understood his life as an immigrant? Did they know what questions to ask to feel close to each other again? What did they feel when they hugged?

 

I ran into Jorge again many years later, in an airport.

“Where have you been?” he asked me. “I looked for you forever. So much time’s gone by. What are you doing now?”

“I quit politics,” I told him. “I’m a writer.”

He looked at me a little astonished. “A writer. Oh. I work in business….”

He hadn’t changed much. Tall, thin people age well, and he had that brown skin that keeps its brilliance over time. He was dressed casually, wasn’t wearing the ring with the red stone, but a wedding ring. It made him nervous when he saw me looking at his hand.

“I’m not married,” I said, studying his face. He held my gaze. He must have interpreted my comment as a reproach. In the narcissism of building himself back up after being abandoned, he must have imagined that no man had made me as happy as he did. Out of nowhere, he pushed me back behind a pole and kissed me. I didn’t want to correct his error. Really, I owed him reparations. I’d abandoned him in London after he’d accompanied me through difficult times.

“I never forgot you,” I said, stressing it. “Never.”

Later, I thought that, with this little lie, my debt was clear.

Jorge kissed me again. Then rushed off toward a tall blonde with a sweet face, probably an Englishwoman.

 

I returned to Buenos Aires six years later, when the dictatorship was on the brink of collapse. But because I had married a Spaniard—a man I met at the magazine—and we have a daughter, it was impossible to relocate. My father and sister picked me up from the airport. Her kids had grown a lot, especially my godson. Whenever I’m with him, he tells me that when he grows up, he’s going to be a writer. “I’m glad,” I say. “You’ll be who I always wanted to be, who I never became.”

I return to Buenos Aires every winter. I like Madrid. My friends are here. I feel incorporated. I can’t decide where I’m from anymore, but I tell myself it doesn’t matter.

Alejandro is established in Mexico now. We write each other a lot. We’ve become good friends, and in some sense he’s the only person who understands me. “I yearn for our life in Brazil,” he repeats, “for those years. In spite of the danger.” Then he says, “Exile never ends, never. Not even when you return to your country. I have the constant feeling of being locked out.”

We fantasize about returning to Buenos Aires one day, to find ourselves again and live all of the lives that weren’t possible. Then we remember that we were never together in that city, and a moment arrives when we stop imagining and become serious:

“The truth is,” I tell myself, I tell him, “we exiles are from everywhere. Or nowhere.”

 

Clara Obligado is an Argentine writer living in Spain since she fled the military dictatorship in 1976. Among many other works, she is author of the novels La hija de Marx, No le digas que lo quieres, Petrarca para viajeros, and the short story collection El libro de los viajes equivocados.

Rachel Ballenger is a writer and translator from Sonoma, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. Her novel-in-progress, Take My Life, won the Inprint Joan and Stanford Alexander Prize in Fiction and was a finalist in the Texas Writers League 2019 Fiction Manuscript Contest.

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Exile

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