Wednesday, March 27, 2013


I want you to hold me. I have never asked this of you before, father analyst. I want you to hold me, tightly. Tell me, perhaps, as you embrace your arms across my chest, my middle age sunken ribs, that you love me. No. Wait. I don’t need your love. I need your pity, your sympathy, your contempt. Tell me that I am not the worthless piece of …. Hold me. Dr. Fucklove does not understand this week’s irrationality. I have ranted before. I have told him that I hate being a gay man in a non-gay world. I have told him that my parents beat me to a pulp when they confirmed I was gay. I was twelve. Sins have no age of innocence. But this …. This I have not told him, not in any of my confessions. Hold me. Love me. Pity me.

He will not hold me, of course. His Freudian training and Irish-Catholic prejudices prevent him from any sincere empathy, any true understanding of the human being; any true empathy for a soul in pain, a soul that does not give a rat’s ass about your Jewish-Catholic-Christian –God-Damn condemnations, abominations, prejudices and judgments. I want understanding. I want forgiveness. Above all, Holly Pope Francis -- the man that baptized me, the man that blessed me with unholy first communion, the man that now leads the holy fucking Catholic Church -- forgive me .. for I have sinned.

The confession will follow.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mi Tango Argentino

Birds and Worms

Moder is sitting in the backyard of her townhouse in Reston Virginia, as my brothers and I are clearing the plates from the birthday celebration. My children and my brother’s children -- mine are blonde because I married a German-Scott, theirs are darker like my family -- all of Moder’s grandchildren, are running around back there, among the trees that sprout in this crowded neighborhood, facing the back deck of the other townhouses in this cluster, calling out her name – abuelita, abuelita -- asking her to play with them – - one two three red-light being their favorite game -- making much too much noise for a Sunday afternoon. Moder seems oblivious to the racket, choosing instead to sit back in her lawn chair, enjoying this lazy Sunday afternoon, celebrating her 81st birthday, although she has had nothing to drink as she has not drank now in so many years, and she seems to be enjoying the children’s laughter. I wonder what she is thinking.


April 5, 2008, 10 A.M.

I was baptized Belinda Ana, but my father, a somewhat brown skinned man, called me Benita. I loved that name, such a lovely diminutive for Belinda Ana. My father, Picho Gonzales, invented the nickname, while he was drinking whiskey and fucking another woman (not my mother) As I remember the story, the prostitute asked him, “What is your daughter’s name?,” at a very imprudent time, just as he was cuming insider her. He grunted, Benita!, and after that he called me by no other name. Benita. I am Benita, daughter of Picho Gonzalez.

Sister Paulina, that dear lovely bitch nun at the convent boarding school where I lost almost my entire youth, Sister Paulina refused to call me Benita. Instead, she insisted on calling me by my full Christian name, that horrible mouthful that had been forced upon me when I was baptized . . . Belinda Ana. “Why do you call me Belinda Ana,” I asked her once, “why not simply Belinda?” She looked at me as if I had asked the stupidest question in the world. “Not to confuse you with the other Belinda, why else. Belinda Bebon. How would I know which one I was speaking to if I did not call you by your full name.” Belinda Bebon was my best friend at school, lovely girl, blonde hair, Italian blue eyes. I fell in love with her the day I met her, the impish smile, the sly child. “No one calls her Belinda Bebon,” I told Sister Paulina. “Every one calls her Bebe.”

“Bebe? As in baby?” asled Sister Paulina. “How strange.”

I am tired now. The sun is in my eyes. I think I will close them for a while.


I am washing the dishes in Moder’s kitchen, while Moder and Father are sitting outside, in the garden, with the children. I can see them from the patio door. A pink buddlia grows next to the white chair where Moder is sitting, recently planted. I helped Moder choose it out at a local nursery, while Father waited in the car. Moder said the color reminded her of the pink flowers of her school, when she was a child I don’t really know much about Moder’s youth, she has told me very little of those days, and I have not asked. I guess I have forgotten that she too was a child, once, and not always a parent.


April 5, 2008, 10.15 A.M.

How strange. I have just woken from a dream, dreams of when I was a child. How strange to be sitting here at age 81, and thinking of such things. In the dream, every one called me Benita. No one calls me Benita anymore, the don’t even call me Belinda Ana. My three sons call me Moder. I taught them that name myself, passed down from my own Moder. It’s what I called my mother, it’s what my mother called her mother, it’s what the Danes in my family have been calling their mothers and grandmothers for as long as anyone can remember. Not my grandchildren though, they insist in calling me “Abuelita,” in reference to my Argentine birth and Spanish heritage. That’s only hald the story, but they don’t want to hear about it. They are mostly busy playing games, growing up, having nothing to do with me. Although, they have come today to celebrate my 81st birthday. For that I should be grateful, I suppose.

There’s one of them now, pulling things out of the ground. What are they digging at I wonder? I wish they would stop making so much noise, for they will wake Tomas.

“Xavier, be a darling, get the children away from Tomas. I don’t want them to wake him up.”

Good, he heard me. Yes children, I say to them, I will play checkers with you later. Such a nuisance. At least they have not wakend him.

Tomás. My dear husband. My dear decrepid man. Do you remember when started calling me Red? You said, “a woman like you, a woman who wears her hair as her most precious possession, should always called Red.” Did you mean that as a compliment? I think you did. And you have called me that, ever since, always, even this morning as I helped you find your teeth that you had carelessly let drop in the bathroom floor. “My darling Red,” you said as you put them on. “My Red.” Silly old man, still calling me that name, although now she has so much white hair you would be hard pressed to guess its once natural color. And the others, the North Americans with whom she must now share her life, call her BelYnda – always pronounced wrongly, as far as she is concerned, without the delicacy and gusto of a strong Argentine accent. “Belinda,” she will say now, at age 81, to anyone who cares to listen to her. “With a strong “I,” as in indisputable.. That is how you should pronounce my name. It is Old Latin, it is Germanic.”

Belinda Ana, Benita, Moder, Abuelita, Red. Belynda. So many names for just one tiny person, so many lives for just one lifetime. And the life she misses the most is the one, or the many, that she left behind in Argentina. Those Argentine days now seem to her to belong to another time period, an other era, an other reality that no one remembers. Particularly not Belinda’s three grown sons. They seem to have no recollection of Argentina, for they were so young when escaped from Buenos Aires. “Not even their father remembers those days,” thinks Belinda, as she stares at her husband. “He just sits there,” she thinks. “He rememembers nothing.”

“Moder, would you like another piece of cake?” Belinda is sitting on a lounge chair in her backyard. A large straw hat covers her face from the sun, so that she must pull the flap back to see who is speaking to her. It is her oldest son, holding a piece of purple frosted cake on a green plate in one hand, and a plastic fork in the other. Most unattractive, she thinks to herself. Where did I go wrong? Manners really are too much bother these days, she supposes. What could she expect, her three boys, her sons, grown up and still incapable of boiling water or cutting bread. Was it the way I brought them up? – wonders Belinda.

“Moder, I asked if you wanted another piece of cake.” She looks up again. Such a nuisance, her divorced, now gay 48 year old. She shoos him away. “Not cake darling,” she says. “You know I’m watching my figure.” He laughs, smiles at her, dumps the cake in the garbage.

“Do you know what is a Porteño?” asks Belinda, to no one in particular as no one is listening. She is casting her voice out to her grandchildren, but they are too busy playing blind man’s bluff to pay attention to her chattering. So many grandchildren, she thinks, the spawn of her spawn, her DNA fingerprint now imprinted on US soil. Who would have guessed she would be surrounded by so many young American faces in her old age. Their childish voices are like bird songs in the air, soothing, ever present, almost unnoticeable. She has fed them lunch, today, they day her family has come to visit her to celebrate her 81st birthday, and they are now playing whimsically in these woods that envelope her townhouse, running away from her when she lectures about what life was like in Argentina. Still, she talks to them in case one of them should be listening. “Porteños is what you call people from Buenos Aires. We Europeans, living in South America – all before the escape.” Her voice trails. She never can tell the grandchildren more than this, never explains to them what she meant by the escape. “How many times must we hear this?” whispers one of the grandchildren to the others.

I heard you, little one, little worm, thinks Belinda. I know what you think of me. Belinda closes her eyes. She remembers what it was like to be a child, to snicker at the adults. She had done it too, but in such a more delicate manner, a subtle and undetectable way, as Bebe, her best girlfriend from school, had taught her even from the first day the met.

Belinda met Bebe at age ten, on the day that they both entered La Anunciata boarding school. They were like two orphans, waiting outside the office of the Mother Superior for their entrance interview. Both had been placed in school by their parents, Belinda because of her parent’s recent separation, Bebe because of her father’s recent widowhood. Belinda noticed immediately Bebe’s darkening blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes, but otherwise Latin looks. Belinda was thin, short, elegant even in the way she breathed. “I hear the nun is a bitch,” said Bebe to Belinda. Those were the first words the girls shared between them. Belinda smiled, her red freckles stretching on her face. Bebe laughed, easily, and wetted her lips. Even though the girls were only ten years old when they met, Belinda was aware that Bebe was a sexual person, except she did not have such words for it. Alluring, is the most she could conceive for describing Bebe. Simpatica.


I place a stack of now clean plates inside the cabinet above the oven, in Moder’s kitchen. She is still laying outside, sunbathing.



Belinda's father, Picho Gonzalez, and her mother, Carlotta Lundsen, were “divorced” (for all practical intent and purpose) when Belinda was placed in La Anunciata school Of course, in Argentina, a Catholic country, divorce was not permissible. Even if it had been legal, Carlotta Lundsen would have none of it. Picho had gotten into the habit of beating Carlotta, after drinking too much, and once left her bleeding at the bottom of the stairs. Belinda had seen this, when she waken at the sound of her father’s screaming and a thump at the bottom of the stairs; Belinda spied through her bedroom door, wearing silk pajamas and a wool cap to soften her curly hair. Any other woman would have left, would have begged her husband to divorce her, but Carlotta Lundsen refused to divorce Picho Gonzalez. That I won’t do, she said, that vow of marriage I won’t break. “Very well,” said Picho, the day he came back to collect his things. “You’ll have your title of wife, but none of me.” Picho moved out of the house, and Belinda was sent to a boarding school, taught by Dominican nuns. From then on, until she graduated from high school, Belinda was raised by the nuns.

Now that Belinda thinks about it, she considers that the nuns taught her a lot of foolishness, like taking a bath with a slip on for fear that your own nudity might arouse improper behavior. “There are things a girl should not see or touch until God mandates,” is what Sister Paulina told Belinda Ana. Even then she thought this was nonsense. But they taught her a lot of good as well, such as the two coats moral (one for yourself, one for the poor), the glass house story (cast no stones), the camel’s hair parable (easier through a needle than entering heaven). Belinda Ana learned her morality and values from the nuns. The stories were as magical to her as fairy tales are to other girls.

Her son offered her cake, but she rejected. Now she wishes she had asked him for a drink. She turns to call out to him “I could use something to drink. . .,” but he is already right there, holding out a glass to her. Lemonade. “Thank you darling,” she says. “I do think Tomás could use something to drink also.”

“You mean Dad?” he asks. “I’ve already given him some.” There is a half smile on his face which is easily mistaken by the uniniciated as a smirk. They do not know that he half smiles out of anxiety.

Belinda smiles, smiles at her son’s excessive eagerness. He so wants to be appreciated, but he so needs to work on that cockiness of his.


Fairy Tales.

“Real fairy tales,” says Belinda as she stretches on her garden chair. She is enjoying this August afternoon, letting her bones sink into the chair as her grandchildren play. Christina happens to be running by, and believes that Belinda is speaking to her. “What is it abuelita?” she asks her grandmother. Belinda looks at her grandchild, and smiles at her. “Nothing child,” she says, “just old memories.” Christina laughs and runs away.

Belinda loves her backyard, she loves the sound of her grandchildren laughing like sparrows in the trees, even if they do make fun of her. It’s not been a bad life, these many years now in the United States. Not a bad time to consider these things, today on this birthday, and yet and yet, she thinks, yet it was so much better in the world of illusions.

When she examines her past, she believes that they -- she and other Argentines of her generation -- lived in a world of illusions. Before they left Buenos Aires to immigrate to New York, she and her husband, Tomás owned a large Tudor style cottage, with well maintained gardens manicured by Bolivian boys with rich brown skin. No harm in looking at the boys while they mowed the lawn, fed the palm trees, hauled around the dirt, exposing the worms to the air. The other household chores, the laundry, the cooking, the child rearing, was taken care of by las muchachas (the girls, the maids). Usually they were post-pubescent teenagers of Indian descent, from the deep corners of the country, like Córdoba or Mendoza. Sometimes the girls were from other countries, like hefty Helga who was not much too look at but was strict with the children and knew how to keep them out of Belinda’s way. Belinda felt no qualms in leaving the child care in the hands of these girls. They were capable enough, and she could occupy herself with other responsibilities, other expectations. She and Tomás were often asked to dinner by important couples, or to a party, or dancing, and then of course Belinda had her own daytime friends, the girls she played Canasta with, the girls (women really, but don’t tell anyone) she had gone to school with and who now lived in the same neighborhood with Belinda. All these couples, all these girlfriends, clamoring for attention, really, thought Belinda; wanting to be recognized, fearing social isolation for that was merely all they had. Belinda befriended them all. The intellectuals, the old money, the new money, the fashion conscious, the military supporters, the leftist liberals. She would not discriminate against any of them; it was simply not practical. In Argentine society, you never know who you will need to call upon some day to do you a favor. Always best to keep people chatted up, thought Belinda. And so, many of her hours were spent making conversation. She loved to converse.

Belinda opens her eyes, wide. She wishes again that she had taken that extra piece of cake, it may have helped her get up, move from this chair that seems to be holding her prisoner today. There are birds flying above her. Starlings. They make such a continuous noise. She remembers that they come from Europe. Common though.

Belinda struggles to stay awake, but fails. Against her aging will, she falls asleep once more, aware that the grandchildren are mocking her in the background (look at Abuelita, she is snoring again!). The shade from the trees protects her face. The sound of the children playing is soothing to her (yes, even when she is the simple subject of their foolish taunts). Even the noise of the starlings is comforting. What was that silly phrase Sister Paulina loved to use so much? Forgive them, for they know not what they do. What a pompous ass that nun really was, how did I not see that, thinks Belinda. She should tell someone about that nun, no one ever really heard that story. The kids might want to hear about that, I’ll tell them, but they seem so far away, climbing on those trees. She would join them if she could, place her flat foot up against the branches just like she did when she was a little girl, and chat them up the way she chatted her girlfriends in her day. But today, she feels so sleepy, so ready to sleep. Oh if there was someone to talk with, someone to converse, someone who would keep her awake.


Joey and Christina are getting anxious. They have had their fill of cake and cookies, and they are ready to leave. They beg me to start up the car. I get angry with them. The party is not over yet. It’s not over until Moder wakes from her chair, opens her presents, and kisses us all good bye. “Not yet,” I tell Joey and Christina. “We are not leaving yet. Moder is still resting.”


Watercress sandwiches.

By her own judgment, at the height of her social life in Buenos Aires, she was the master of conversations. If left to her own devices, she would have preferred to speak of math and science, which fascinated her. But few people wanted to spend much time talking such subjects. Particularly not women, not then, not in Argentina of the 1950’s. The common subject, the one that occupied the most time, was fashion. Belinda’s father ridiculed the topic. “Man has better things to do than worry about costumes,” said Picho. “It’s embarrassing to spend so much time talking of such things.” Belinda however was not embarrassed by the subject, in fact, she enjoyed it, relished everything about fashion. She liked choosing and discussing what looked good on her, trying to emulate the latest trends, adorning her body with silks and fabrics, pendants, hats and roses. She would admit to herself that she did not have the most perfect body among her group of friends, but no one could deny to her that she had the most beautiful taste. All of it, everything she ever chose to wear, was meant to accentuate and flatter her most precious feature, her hair. It was “lusciously red” as her father had once called it, the day of her sixteenth birthday when Belinda had a party and invited all her classmates, and she was certain of her ability to accentuate the redness with the vibrancy of her clothes. Green, she found, was the most alluring of all colors to show off the ginger locks. And she knew, as she had long ago discovered, that women were as equally attracted to a good looking woman as they were to a good looking man. There was, she knew, an undeclared sexuality within the ranks of the same sex that expresses itself in deep friendship, deep desire to have the company of another woman. “You all flock to each other like birds,” said Picho Gonzales dismissively, on that same sixteenth birthday as Belinda and her girlfriends enjoyed tea and champagne. Belinda had served watercress sandwiches and croissants with ham and cheese.


I’m encouraging Joey and Christina to play with their cousins. There’s not a real close relationship there. I was never particularly close with my brothers, Xavier and Sebastian, and their children are not particularly close to my children. It’s a somewhat predictable cycle. We all come round to make homage to Moder and Tomás, but none of us really talk with each other. No real sense of affection, of being glad to see a family member. Some family.



Picho was a member of the oligarchy in Argentina, although he considered himself self made, without the assistance of anyone. He had a successful medical practice in downtown Buenos Aires, el Centro, because of his smarts and his good looks. That’s the way he saw it. No one ever helped him attain any of this, as far as he was concerned, so he felt neither obligation nor compassion for anyone. Not his father nor his mother (both of whom died in their 50’s) nor his siblings who were unable to find employment. He was not about the share the pie with anyone, not when he had worked so hard for it on his own time and effort. His clientele consisted mainly of women who found his manner gentle and educated. They were charmed by his good looks, his dark hair, his green eyes. The charm did not stop at the office. Picho Gonzalez was not afraid to have affairs with his patients, with their girlfriends, with women from the Cafes or the streets. Why society would accept a prominent man who was also know as a prominent womanizer is something that only a Latin American could explain. The double standard was very apparent to Belinda, even as a child she was acutely aware of the different expectations for her father, and her mother who was equally intelligent and handsome but fully expected to be the quiet housewife at home.

Belinda remembers her 16th Birthday, and her father’s embarrassing attendance at her party full of girls. Picho picked away at the food while staring at the well dressed girls, at the cusp of puberty. Some of them looked away in embarrassment, others (like Bebe) looked Picho right back in the eyes, and smiled “Which one of you is the worm?,” asked Picho, loud enough to be heard by everyone. Bebe, Belinda’s best friend, smiled in acknowledgment. “So yo,” she said. It is me.

* * *

Only a few of Moder’s girlfriends came to her 81st birthday party. It’s understandable. So many of her friends are dead or frailty, and those who aren’t live in Argentina. Too far a trip to make just for someone’s birthday when they are so close to death themselves. I wonder how Moder’s girlfriends would have celebrated this occasion in Buenos Aires. It would probably have been a catered affair, with white lace and fancy dress. Here in the U.S. we are celebrating her momentous birthday in her back yard, wearing shorts and polo shirts. My brothers did not even shave, best I can tell. The two of them are off in a corner talking with each other, excluding me, probably exchanging baseball statistics or football trivia. They love that crap. I’m bored by it, as I am boried with this party. If I was not so afraid of incurring Moder’s unforgiving wrath, I would have left about an hour ago. Instead, here I am still, trying to move this party along so that I can finally go home.

* * *

Bebe, again.

Bebe and Belinda lead parallel lives; they both married at about the same time; they later had children of similar age; they set up house in the same neighborhood of Vicente Lopez, in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Bebe colored her hair yellow, more than merely blonde, and entered into marriage with a military doctor, Lorenzino. The military aspect did not please Belinda’s husband, he spoke ill of Bebe and her family, suspected them of living from dirty money stolen from the government. Belinda did not care. She was practical about these things, as she had been taught to be by her father. It is rare that a person who makes too much noise about such things can get along in a military dictatorship. “It’s all relative,” is what Belinda’s father had told her. “Just know that in your heart you are doing the right thing Benita, and let the others atone for their sins if and when God asks them too.” Very practical advice, very easily emulated.


Bebe, still.

“Bebe.” Belinda finds herself whispering her old friend’s name. She blurts it out as if there’s no room in her mouth to hold the four letters, as if she must set them free. “Bebe,” she practically screams out. Strange to be thinking of her, yelling her name out today on Belinda’s 81st birthday, as if Bebe was of any importance after all these years. Belinda’s son (who seems to staring me all day long, thinks Belinda) hears his mother say Bebe’s name. He raises his eyebrows, as if he’s been offended by a foul smell.
“What did you say Moder?, he asks.

Belinda wishes he had not heard her, but she has nothing to hide. She can’t think about anyone she wants. Privileges of old age is that no one dictates what you think or say. “I said Bebe,” she tells her son. “I’ve been thinking about her lately.:

“That’s a name from the past,” answers her oldest son. “Really scrapping the barrel for memories, aren’t we dear?”

Such sarcasm, thinks Belinda. What have I done to deserve this shit. “Have you been taking your medicine?” asks Belinda to her oldest son. “You know what the doctor says, ever since your incident. You need to take that medicine.” The boy, the man really, walks away.

He thinks I’m a bitch; I can tell by the darkening of his green eyes. “Yes, Moder I have,” he answers, clenching those white teeth. No sense in being uncivil today, not now, after so many years.


When they started to disappear. Los Desaparecidos.

Bebe introduced Belinda to the local Canasta Club, and through that Belinda met other wives in similar circumstances. They spent many long afternoons playing cards, and chatting. The women would compare the latest triumphs of their sons and husbands, they would argue about which places one should visit during vacation. They drank whiskey, sometimes red wine, and they dressed in the latest Paris fashions. This fantasy, this illusion of European life in Latin America, had a heavy price tag. The system worked only and solely if the country accepted the military in power. Those who did not know how to keep their mouths shut, those who dared confront the military, were treated as Argentine cattle -- their heads are cut off so that they can bleed to death. And the blood could be seen on the streets. It could be seen during the early morning hours, before the street cleaners wiped away the evidence of the night’s before massacred. It was not every night, but it was often enough that if one cared to, if one looked and admitted what was happening, one would know. Belinda knew. She noticed people who suddenly disappeared, family men who were not seen of or spoken about. It nagged her. Her father’s practicality told her to be quiet, the nun’s sensibility urged her to speak up. She bit her lips.

After a night of executions, while playing cards with the other ladies of Vicente Lopez, Belinda broached the subject delicately, once, just that once:

“Fulano disappeared,” said Belinda, as she put down a thee kings and a joker. “No one knows what happened to him and perhaps . . . well, as they say. . . “ Belinda discards a seven.

“He must have done something,” answered Bebe. She applied a bit of lipstick before realizing it was her turn. She puts down three sevens, and steels the deck. “You know that the ones that disappear are always the ones who have done something. It’s a question of protecting our Republic against those pigs.”

“Why is that?” answered Belinda, while counting the cards on her hand. She had 2 black threes, and she knew these would be pints against her if someone went out before she was able to put them down. “What have they done?” she asked.

“Don’t be a fool,” answered Bebe. “We simply will not speak of this. I am done with this nonsense. If there’s blood, then let them clean it up and be done with it. We have to support our military” She put down all her cards. Three canastas. Two red threes. “This will be a tidy little winnings.”

* * *

Moder is finally opening her eyes. The sun must have been bothering her, or maybe the children are screaming too much. She’ll never tell one way or the other.

* * *

Waking up, groggy.

How long have I been sleeping? – wanders Belinda. It may have been hours, or seconds, time seems so insignificant when one is 81 years old. The children, her grandchildren, appear to be just as energetic as they were before lunch, so they must not have been playing a long time. Her nap must not have been long. It seemed long, or complicated. She hates when she dreams about Argentina, the 1950’s. Belinda dislikes the abbreviated, condensed and time juxtaposed version of life that she always paints in her dreams. One would think that at age 81 one would be spared such nightmares, or perhaps that’s too strong a word; not nightmares, not really, just inconvenient, unnecessary, discomforting. Dreams should not be comforting, thinks Belinda. They should be neither nostalgic nor morose. Why bother dreaming if the dreams will bring no comfort?

She sees that the children are playing tag. She loved playing tag herself as a child, and red light, and statutes, and jacks, and basketball. No one would guess that she played basketball once. Lord, no one guess she was a child once! These children here, her grandchildren, all they see is an 81 year old woman, they don’t see the child that is still in her. They don’t see the imaginative child that is still beating strong in her heart, though she must admit the body has certainly slowed down. No more time, or no more energy, for acting out imaginations.

She looks at the starling again, perched on the telephone line above her. They have such strong feet, she thinks, to be able to hold on so tightly and precariously. The children are trying to shoo the birds away. Belinda would do the same at their age. It’s fun to watch the birds fly, their flight is strong and direct, and they seem so gregarious. She imagines that the birds have dressed up for the occasion, this her 81st birthday, their typically dark plumage today shining its metallic sheen, in celebration of her birthday.

She closes her eyes again.

Imaginations, thinks Belinda. Imaginations. How sad imaginations are and the illusions to which one can so easily submit.


Easy to believe.

She was born in Buenos Aires, in the economical and social epicenter of what was then one of the most important countries in the world. 1927. “We are the eighth largest economy on this globe,” would say Picho to her. “Who knows. We might even be the largest, as far as I’m concerned.”

It was easy for Belinda – it was so easy for Benita -- to believe everything Picho told and promised her. They were the promises of a life of luxury, interesting work, social responsibility and a non-meddling government. Of course, Picho was an intimate friend those days of the dictator then in power – the son of a bitch Peron. Son of a bitch because Peron, just like Picho, had promised grandiosities which never came to be.

It would have been easiest to continue this existence of illusions, this world of privilege in which the children attended the best Scottish school in the continent (who ever proved this detail?), this world of servants and hours of Canasta. Canasta marathons. It would have been easy.

After high school, Belinda had earned a degree in teaching match and biology. Her original dream had been to go on to study medicine and join her father’s medical practice, if Picho would have her. She had never discussed the subject with her father, but had assumed that it was what he would want. She was, after all, her father’s daughter, his image, the proud recipient of his high IQ genes. Belinda had the same contempt for her mother, Carlotta Lundsen, as did her father, and she imagined herself to be a female version of Picho Gonzales. She wanted nothing to do with domesticity, a quiet life in a quiet house, a room full of children. That was for the Carlotta’s of this world. Fine for them, but not for Belinda Gonzales, daughter of Picho Gonzales. She orchestrated an elaborate scenario for telling her father of the decision she had made to study medicine, plans she had harbored almost her entire life. She made reservations to have high tea with her father at Harrods, on Calle Florida in Buenos Aires. Harrods was a grand Belle Époque building, selling the same items sold in the London store, but catering to the South American elite. Tea at Harrods was for some middle class Porteños a dream come true, a once in a lifetime occasion. For Benita and her father it was customary, yet enjoyable.


Grandchildren clamoring for attention.

“Abuelita, abuelita, look at us?” Belinda opens her eyes. Joey, Christina and Michaela have climbed a tree. They are trying to get her attention, maybe have her come over and play with them. She does not have the energy. She looks at them and smile from the distance. She has false teeth, and the children think this is very funny. They laugh whenever she smiles, the perfect teeth against the wrinkles. The children laugh, and then turn away, back to their tree climbing.

Belinda turns to listens to the starlings. Their call is not easy to distinguish. They copy the call of other birds, sometimes they even mock car alarms. Some people consider them pests.

Belinda closes her eyes again.


Telling Picho about medical school.

She loved her father, even though he had prohibited her from becoming a doctor. She loved his captivating smile, his superior intelligence. Such a handsome man. “Everyone always commented on his beauty,” would tell Belinda. “All my girlfriends could see it. They were jealous.” With that phrase, usually, Belinda would take a sip of her whiskey. One sip after another. But she would never get drunk, or at least that’s what she thought to herself.

Belinda’s plan had been to tell Picho right in the middle of tea at Harrods, on Calle Florida. She had recently turned 17, and was eager to have her father join in her self-congratulating celebration, her decision to go on to study medicine. They would have tea at Harrods, and they Picho (or so she imagine) would order champagne and make a real celebration Of course, Picho had never drank champagne with his daughter; he was a whiskey man; but she thought that for this occasion, this sharing of the interests (daughter takes on the profession of her father), he would make an exception and celebrate the way people are supposed to; at least how Europeans as supposed to. Belinda ate very little, only nibbling the crusts of her watercress sandwiches, and drank simple Earl Grey. She watched the other beautiful Porteños, the women particularly in their elegant white dresses with rounded busts and waistline curves – their hair adorned with small plate shaped hats. The clothes were feminine, sweet and tidy. Some of the dresses made from metallic colored fabrics, which shimmered even more richly with their plastic sequins and glass beads. Belinda loved the fashion, admired it and emulated it. She had painted her lips richly red that day, to match her strawberry blonde locks. To Picho’s eyes she looked like a tart. He smoked at cigar while staring unsympathetically at his daughter. “I would have bed her,” he thought, “If she were not my daughter, I would bed her.” He felt brazen to entertain such thoughts, but he was confident that a man can have thoughts and not act on them. “I need to keep an eye an on you,” he said to Belinda, giving her a half hearted smile. She did not know what he meant, or knew exactly and chose to ignore it. Benito continued sipping his whiskey, ready to order another and to light up a new cigar. He couldn’t understand all the medical nonsense about the effects of tobacco smoke; it may shorten your life, but it surely brought a lot of pleasure. Kind of like a woman in bed, he thought; surely all that pounding about is not so good for the heart, but God does it feel good.

The waiter, wearing a cheap black tux but with an impeccably white crisp shirt, came around with the cake cart. It was stacked with lemon cake and napoleons, tea biscuits and strawberry tarts. Neither Picho nor Belinda would eat any of it, but Picho ordered one of each in any event. He lit a new cigar as he pointed to the waiter for an ashtray and a light. The waiter attended to Picho’s cigar first, almost as attentively as he would have if the cigar had been a special guest; and then he placed one of each dessert on the table, most of it within Belinda’s reach and not Picho’s. The waiter stared at Belinda, daring her to eat the sweets.

Belinda ignored the waiter, ignored the sweet cakes placed in front of her, always conscious of her figure. She thought this was an opportune time to tell father about her career decision. She could use a glass of champagne by now. She figured if she told Picho while the waiter was still there, the champagne would come to the table that much sooner.

Picho is looking at the other side of the room. It is unlikely that he is admiring the stained glass window, vibrant reds and blues depicting lilies suspended in air. Picho has no eye for such details. What’s more likely caught his eye is some “boquita pintada,” – a young woman with painted lips. Belinda knows this. Usually she is able to ignore her father’s public flirtations. She knows that Picho Gonzales will wolf a lamb at every chance, but today Belinda wishes he would stay focus on the conversation. Belinda turns to assess her competition, the little bitch who is taking away her father’s attention. She’s surprised to see it’s a morena, a dark skinned brunette with tight fitting dress, black, tassels hanging from the skirt like icicles. Not his type, thinks Belinda. He usually prefers them fair, redheaded or blonde.

“Picho” (she always called him Picho, never dad or papa or father). “I have great news for you.”

He looked at her suspiciously, as if women had only one piece of good news to ever give, and he had no interest in hearing at this time that she was pregnant. The noise from the crowd at the Harrods’ restaurant was suffocating. He really did not enjoy these outings. Why did Belinda always insist in these settings, and especially now, with her possibly about to tell him she was pregnant. He growled, snarled really, unable to smile at his daughter under these circumstances.

Belinda knew exactly what he was thinking, and she laughed. She could not help herself. How foolish Picho could be sometimes. “Relax Picho,” she said as she sipped her tea. She put down the cup and looked into his dark eyes, admired his luscious curly black hair. “I’ve made a decision. I’m going to study medicine, and become a doctor like you.” She held his hand and caressed his hairy forearms.

Picho did not take even two seconds to consider the proposal. The idea of a woman, his daughter, attending medical school was preposterous. This needed no thinking or consideration, no diplomatic maneuvering. He simply used his right hand to remove her hand from his arms, and used his left hand to put out his cigar. He looked at the ashtray rather than Belinda’s eyes as he pronounced definitively and nonchalantly his edict on this matter. “That’s for men,” he said, putting out his cigar. “Medicine is for men. You stick to teaching or the nunnery. Leave the rest to those who know best.”


Becoming 81 years old.

Now the sun is coming down. Belinda’s oldest son is caressing her shoulder, prompting her to wake up. “Moder, darling, are you ok?”

Belinda looks at him, his eyes, the ones that remind her of her own father, her Picho. Why is she dreaming so much about her father today? He was womanizer, a wife beater. You would think that by age 81 she would have learned to stop thinking about this man. Belinda, Benita as Picho called her, remembers the at age six she was awaken from her sleep when Picho was slapping Carlotta around. Carlotta had called him on it, questioned what diseases he would be bringing home if he kept sleeping around like a whore. Picho was livid. He pummeled Carlotta, until blood blinded her eyes, and then pushed her down the stairs. Miraculously she survived. Before leaving the house, Picho himself called the ambulance to come pick up Carlotta. Carlotta could talk, but she could not move. Both her legs had been broken during the fall. Belinda observed Carlotta’s bloody body at the bottom of the stairs. The maid took Belinda away. “Come away from their girl. Come sit outside with me. You father says everything will be fine.” While they were waiting for the ambulance, Belinda and the maid sat in the garden, under the moonlight, turning over worms under the rocks. “Birds will eat these, won’t they?” asked Belinda. “Yes child,” said the maid. Picho put on his black overcoat and top hat, kissed Belinda goodnight as if this were no different than any other night. “Benita,” he said to her. “You pay attention to Isabel tonight. Tomorrow you are going a new school, a boarding school with nuns. Won’t that be fun child?” Belinda said nothing. She kept playing with her worms.

Belinda opens her eyes wider. She is still sitting in her back yard, in the United States, not in Argentina. She is 81 years old, not 6. She must remember this. This she must remember.

“Let’s go inside, Moder,” says Belinda’s oldest son as he helps her get out of her chair.

Belinda looks at the sky. She can no longer see the birds. “Where have the starlings gone?” she asks.

* * *

I help Moder come inside. I would not say she is delicate and in need of assistance, but she is certainly not the same woman who raised her children with an iron fist. She is glad to lean on my shoulder as we walk up the stairs into her kitchen. It is almost as if we were a good mother and child, a loving couple. Such hypocrisy.

* * *

Still thinking like a 17 year old.

At age 17, a month before graduating from La Anunciata (the catholic school for girls run by nuns), Belinda asked her father permission to start attending medical school. He said no. There was no arguing the matter.

But just as her father, Belinda had an enormous intelligence and would not be satisfied with a future of tending house. She left Harrods that day, that cloudy August 1944, at age 17, determined to break with tradition. Her mind flustered as she walked down Calle Florida and then Corrientes, up the hill to her mother’s house. She debated during that walk the value of her intelligence, the futility of it if she was not to display it in a learned profession. “What is the purpose?” she pondered, “and where does it come from? Is it something I merely inherited from Picho, as a sperm’s afterthought, or is it a bit of education, something I learned from the nuns?” Most girls Belinda’s age, 17, would not have pondered any of this, but Belinda analyzed it thoroughly, even obsessed about it, and put it all down in letters to herself which she would seal into envelopes and keep on the top drawer of her desk. Letters that she would never mail but would always keep. She had written, she had written her letters religiously each night after her prayers, much mocked by her father but encouraged by the nuns. From her father, she said in so many words, she had inherited the unbeatable capability of ignoring other people’s judgment, beating them at their own game. From her mother, she could see nothing in her, but was forced to admit that her beauty, her true adoration for clothes and etiquette, fashion, came from Carlotta. And also the patience – the patience of knowing that even though men and society despised her, she was intelligent. But what Belinda feared, and what she wrote most about, was that she may inherited the dark side of his father. “Not his brutality,” she wrote in the letters. “Dear God, please do not let me know that I have his brutality.” Not the ability to brutalize a person, and to then walk away as if nothing had happened.

Let us skip that for now. Let us focus on the positive, on the values that Belinda learned or inherited and exemplified in her life. They came from the nuns, from Sister Paulina in particular. Paulina was an immigrant from Spain, arrived in Buenos Aires with nothing but “onion breath” as she would say. The nunnery had not been her choice, it was her destiny. Unable to find anything more than a maid’s position, she chose the church as refuge and self respect. She loathed the Argentine oligarchy, the ones that looked down their noses at her for her lack of refinement. But she loved being able to influence the oligarchy in a way that no other person could influence them – through their children. Paulina, through sheer determination and intelligence, had positioned herself as the headmistress of Buenos Aires’ best Catholic high school for girls - La Anunciata, a dormitory school, where she had uninterrupted access to the daughters and future wives of the most influential men in Argentina. She did not abuse this position, but she used it to humble and educate the girls who by the time they entered Paulina’s school were already spoiled by the wealth of their parents. Most girls she had only a minimal influence on, one that translated into devout Catholicism in the girls but no true understanding of the teachings of Christ, no true “share your coat” mentality as Paulina herself would espouse.

Paulina believed deeply in the mission of La Anunciata school: Respect for the dignity of the person and harvesting each person’s peculiar values (hence Paulina required that her dormitory girls take baths fully clothed less they should see their nakedness); the simplicity, opening, positive attitude, compassion, mercy and closeness to everyone, especially those most in need (hence Paulina required her girls to assist her in distributing food to the hungry in the shanty towns, the Villa Miseria); education from social welfare to fraternity in an environment of dialogue, participation, co-responsibility and solidarity (hence Paulina was a strict disciplinarian, known to punish girls by beating them over the knuckles with a ruler, just enough to turn red, never enough to bleed); profound search for truth through the Word of God and the contemplation of such reality (hence Paulina liked to masturbate at night, alone, in contemplation of the pleasure that God had granted her vagina); a progressive synthesis and harmony between faith, culture and life; and above all, unfailing love of Maria, Mother of Jesus.

She was a complex character, Paulina, suspected by more than one of the girls to be a lesbian at heart. They kept their distance from her, while at the same time they admired her deep sense of social responsibility, but they were horrified by her perverse obsession with religiosity and the “rules of chastity.” Few of the girls believed all of this nonsense; they chose in bits and portions what of Paulina’s words they would take with them, and make fun of the rest. Belinda had been a rare example of Paulina’s influence gone right. The girl was only six years old when she was interned at the convent school. She adored everything that Paulina had to offer, however strange it seemed. A smart child is a rare thing, a smart child bent on believing the words of a nun is a dangerous thing. Paulina was up for the job.


It started innocently on Saturdays.

Most girls go home. Even of those that staid in dorm for the weekend, only a handful went with Paulina, out of punishment or stupidity. Belinda was the only smart girl that ever joined Paulina’s weekend missions of charity, feeding the hungry at Villa Miseria (Village of Misery). They distributed food to the poor on Saturdays, from ten a.m. sharp (after morning mass) until 11:30 am (giving them time to come back to La Anunciata for mid-day mass). Paulina had been doing this service for decades, and she loved the autonomy it gave her, the hours away from the school and the convent. This was her domain. She had managed through guilt and prayer to talk one of the landlord’s into giving her a dilapidated building practically rent free, which she painted stark white and swept and scrubbed sanitary clean. She decorated it simply with wooden furniture she bartered for at an open market store off the Parana river. For decorations, she had the mandatory cross, a vibrantly colored painting of La Virgin Maria, and prints of folkloric dancers from her native Asturias. These were sent to her by her father and mother in Santander, who never quite understood why Paulina had left Spain. Belinda loved the cleanliness of Paulina’s offices contrasted to the shanty town misery that surrounded it. Paulina loved the charity work, but she also derived pleasure from the respect that the community gave to her. At her offices, as she called her food shelter, she was not the subservient mistress of Christ, the teacher of daughters of the Argentine privileged class, the Spanish immigrant in South American soil. Here she was mistress and master of her own domain, the giver of goods, the benefactress of many who respected her, viewed her as God’s emissary on Earth. She thought and knew these things, but never uttered them. It was enough to sense it, to believe in it, to carry her through the week at La Anunciata.

None of the other girls would have known or suspected such hubris from Paulina. They idiotically believed that Paulina’s charity work was a mere extension of her Christian beliefs, her martyr syndrome, her sisterly duties. Each girl had a different variant of the same theme for explaining Paulina, but they were only fractionally correct in their assumptions. Only Belinda understood the complexity of it, the duality of Paulina’s feelings. True, Christ had taught us to serve others, but what sin is there to derive pleasure form the duty, to extract homage from the sacrifice. Belinda would often sit in Paulina’s office, watching as Paulina administered alms in self righteous haughtiness. “I get it,” said Belinda to herself. “I get what this is all about.”

Sister Paulina derived particular pleasure of having her girls do service in the shantytowns; perhaps a stained dressed, a broken nail, spoiled garters would serve small penance for the haughtiness of the girls, while at the same time allowing them to serve Maria and Jesus as they were intended to. If Sister Paulina happened to derived some additional pleasure from the girls trivial torments, if Paulina happened to believe that this was just compensation for the dismissive disdain she received and endured from the girls’ parents, so be it; it was a small sin, and not one that anyone ever really needed to hear; no confession of this slight sin of hubris as far as Paulina was concerned.

* * *

We have laid out the gifts on the kitchen table. What do you buy an 81 year old woman? She is in need of nothing. She does not have a sweet tooth, so candy is not an option. All of us seem to have thought of the same gift, plants and flowers. There’s a veritable garden of potted daffodils and gladiolas in vases strewn on the table. One would think this was a florist shop. Moder looks at it graciously, smiles, thanks everyone for their generosity and kindness. She likes that we have gathered to celebrate her day.


Villages of misery.

When Picho Gonzalez informed Belinda Gonzalez that she would not become (was not to ever even think of becoming) a doctor, Belinda made two decisions. The first would be to marry the first eligible man that appeared in her life (and that came to be Tomás Humphrey). The second was to join forces with the most formidable woman she knew, and that would be Sister Paulina.

Belinda visited Paulina at the food shelter in Villa Miseria. The nun was resting as the girls from the school distributed food. She immediately recognized Belinda, her once favorite student.

“Belinda Ana. What brings you here?”

“Good morning Sister Paulina. It is so good to see you. You look well.”

“I look like an old lady. But I’m doing God’s work. So what more can I ask for.”

“There’s more,” said Belinda, staring straight at the eyes of her favorite nun. She held the stare, daring Sister Paulina to look beyond the shelter.

“And what would that be?” asked Paulina.

“I’ve given it some thought,” responded Belinda. “I think you should help me set up a woman’s clinic, here in Villa Miseria.”

Paulina did not blink. She did not offer the hundred and one reasons that any other person in her position would have coffered against the idea of a woman’s clinic. Rather, she thought to herself, “Finally,” finally one of my students gets it.

Paulina and Belinda worked on their new mission expeditiously but silently, not wanting to bring too much attention to themselves. Paulina negotiated once again a deal with a landlord for space not too far from the food shelter, but sufficiently far as to not be considered part of the same establishment. In it, Belinda began a simple clinic where she taught those who were not yet pregnant how to avoid getting pregnant, and teaching those who were pregnant how to protect the health of the fetus. All this Belinda and Paulina did in secret from those who knew them outside of Villa Miseria. Paulina had earned sufficient respect and independence in the convent, that no one questioned her long Saturdays away from the flock. During the week, when Sister Paulina could not attend the health clinic, Belinda spent morning hours supervising volunteers. Her Picho, her husband, her sons never found out what took up so much of Belinda’s time when she left the house in the morning after a small cup of strong coffee. They all imagined that she spent her days and afternoons shopping at the chicest stores, buying the latest French style, anything, trying on the most expensive dress she could find. And in this, perhaps these men in her life were correct. Belinda was capable of living in both worlds. Her social aesthetics led her to humanitarian acts in the Villa Miseria, but also her vanity would lead her to buy clothes that would accentuate her red hair, her slender legs, her excessively fair white skin.

I’ve helped Moder move the plants and flowers from the Kitchen table to the solarium. Father is sitting there by himself, as always. He is wearing tennis shoes and a three piece suit, a wrinkled shirt, a necktie that some grandchild has given him as a present, something in the past (no one remembers when), and boina (a beret, but from Spain rather than France). It is a dignified yet comic look. Even in the summer he will wear a suit and hat, remnants of his strict upbringing, the comfortable shoes, tennis shoes, were a recent addition, in the past twenty years, when he could no longer tolerate the rough leather of his black shoes against his arthritic toes. Only a man Tomás Humphrey could carry off this look. “Father,” I say, “are you having a good time?”


Tomás. Tomás Humphrey.

Tomás Humphrey. An Anglo-Argentine whose masculine beauty was well renowned within Belinda’s circle of friends. Tomás was a young attorney, a member of the Chamber of Deputies in the Argentine Congress, and a law partner of Juan de la Roca Gonzales, Belinda’s first cousin. Tomás and Belinda did not know each other directly, but knew of each other through their friends, relatives and mutual acquaintances. They had the same connections, or at least lived in the same small center of Argentine illusions. Tomás’ family, although of British descent, had under its belt more years, more decades, in Argentina than the Gonzales family. Belinda’s antecedents had arrived to the River Plate not more than two generations ago On her father’s side, Picho, the family came from Barcelona or Asturias (Belinda could never quite get this detail right), and on her mother’s side they had come from Denmark (Copenhagen and the Isle of Moen is what Belinda had always been told). But the Humphrey family had arrived in the Province of Buenos Aires almost four generations now, always maintaining their command of the English language and British customs. They spoke English with more care and elegance than a member of Parliament. At the same time, they tended sheep and herded cattle like true Argentine gauchos. Tomás himself would spend the entire summers of his early youth on the family estancia, in the far regions of the province, mounted all day on horseback. The rein would be so tight against his small fair wrists that the sunburn marks would leave white streaks where the leash was wrapped around the skin. And his eyes were blue. Not true blue, ,but pale blue with streaks of green

Every girl who knew Tomás Humphrey had dreams of marrying him, but none more so than Belinda. Tomás, despite his good looks and intelligence, was a shy man, incapable of bringing himself to chase after a woman. He had of course had his share of prostitutes, but no respectable girl yet, no one he could bring home. Belinda knew immediately what she was up against, and made it her mission to make this man fall in love with her. She figured out his daily schedule, and cleverly appeared at times and places where she could count on his presence. At the corner, waiting for the No. 54 Bus at 7:30 Am, at the confitería having tea at 4:00 pm, at the library at 6 pm, at a small restaurant at 10 pm. She was clever about it, always making it seem as a coincidence. At first Tomás took little note, but finally it registered. Her beauty which he had admired for so long suddenly seem to be everywhere, and he believed that destiny was trying to tell him something. “Why don’t you take me to the Teatro Colón on Saturday?” finally asked Belinda one night. “They are playing Lorca. We both like Lorca.” Tomás bought tickets the next day, for Belinda, himself, and Belinda’s mother, the chaperone. They dated for three months, always with Belinda’s mother in tow as chaperone. One month later they eloped.

“We would make beautiful children” thought Belinda when they married. “My red hair his blue eyes.”

Belinda imagined many things when she married Tomás Humphrey. There was of course the initial shock that would need to be overcome, having eloped without a ceremony, but this was easily glossed over. Belinda’s mother, now divorced from Picho, was not much for ceremony, and Picho Gonzalez was sufficiently pleased by the prospects of Tomás Humphrey as to not put up too much opposition. Belinda’s girlfriends were informed of the marriage by handwritten cards on expensive bonded paper, imported from Paris. They assumed the worst, that Belinda was pregnant and had to get married, and though this was not true, Belinda made no attempt to assure them otherwise. She gracefully accepted their congratulations, a few of them gave them gifts, and she set up house with Tomás Humphrey.

The second thing that Belinda imagined is that sex with Tomás Humphrey would be pleasurable. It was, it exceeded her expectations. For a shy man, Tomás was exceptionally uninhibited in the bedroom. Belinda imagined that he had learned his bed side manners at the estancia, on some Indian girl who showed him how to ride horse on a woman. At times it was even brutal, but always enjoyable. Belinda took pleasure in stripping quickly whenever they were in bed, shedding any false sense of immortality or indecency that the nuns would have otherwise imputed on her. Tomás would kneel at the food at the bed while Belinda spread her very white legs apart. He would crouch, as if seeking to sip water from a burbling creek, and kiss her genitals gently. “You are truly a red head,” he admired the first time he saw her pubes. “I thought as much.” He gently made love to her clitoris as if it were a newborn baby. From then on, Tomás always referred to Belinda as Red. Belinda had ceased to exist.

The third thing Belinda imagined, however, the thing she cherished the most, was the illusion that she and Tomás would make beautiful Argentine babies. They would have their combined Nordic good looks, her red hair, his green blue eyes, and Picho's intelligence and masculinity. Her sons, her eldest son in particular, would be everything that Belinda had not been allowed to be. He would be a take charge personality, he would be Argentina’s miracle child.

But it did not happen that way. Belinda’s and Tomás’ first born, the oldest son, had crisp curly hair. It was not red, Nordic, like Belinda’s. It was wavy, almost frizzy, like Picho Gonzales. His eyes were not blue either, they seemed darker, and certainly the same shape as Picho. Belinda could not help but feel disappointment in her son’s looks, appearances. He had inherited the darkness of her father. “Another illusion stolen by Picho Gonzales” thought Belinda to herself.


The party is over now, finally. It is nearly 8 pm, and we have been here since 10 am this morning. After opening her presents, her flowers really, Moder insisted in having the kids put on a play. She helped them write it, spontaneously, full of fairies and donkeys who turn into princes. Christina dusted everyone with crunched pedals, fairy dust she called it. Joey laughed. Moder has a way with children, a way that was never practiced on me. When I leave, I kids Father, I kiss Moder. She hugs him tight. Tighter than usual. As Joey and Christina and I leave in my car, Moder and Father are standing in their front porch waiving at us. “Bitch,” I think to myself.


The first born son of Tomás Humphrey.

He was a difficult child, Belinda’s oldest son. He was too prone to fantasies, fairies, irrationalities. Belinda still remembers the day, at age 7, when the boy was left to play in the garden, the front yard of their house in El Libertador. The house was Tudor style, with faux towers and large windows made up of small double triangle inserts. The windows opened by hinges, the doors were solid dark wood with stark white molding. The garden was overgrown, but neatly maintained, as if transplanted from a London suburb to Buenos Aires soil. Inside the house, the child was not allowed to run or play, lest he should make a mess of things or break some of Belinda’s favorite china or her treasured glasses. It would have been best for all if he had other children to play with, neighborhood friends he could run wild with and exhaust himself so that he would be docile at night and simply go to bed after dinner. That’s how Belinda believed boys should act, like wild animals in the back yard, comatose inside the house. And masculine, above all masculine.

The boy fitted none of these images. He had no friends in the neighborhood, except perhaps the little girl who lived at the corner house and who had an unnatural crush on the boy. Mostly, he played by himself, and they were simple games, quiet games of exploration and make belief. It was not unusual for him to want to put on little plays, which Belinda strongly discouraged. On this day, when he was let out in the front garden to play, Belinda had an excruciating headache. President Ilia had recently been overthrown by the military, lead by General Onganía. Already Onganía had moved the military into the University of Buenos Aires and subdued and drove out faculty members as well as students. It was widely rumored that Onganía would close down Congress, but he would set up a group of well chosen representatives to form Committees to advise him on political matters. Tomás had been handpicked for an interview with Onganía. Belinda had no illusions what this meant. Tomás would be asked to join Ongania’s government by committee, but only if Tomás would support the ardent anti-communism, anti-Peronist stands that Onganía espoused. Those who did not agree with Onganía’s methods or politics were exiled or otherwise made to disappear. Eventually, the judges of Argentina's supreme court would be replaced with Onganía’s hand chosen protégés; trade unions would be abolished, the press and the arts would came under the governments zero-tolerance censorship. These were not times for fancifulness; these were times for pragmatism.

Belinda herself had arranged in part for the meeting between Onganía and Tomás. Onganía’s wife, Emilia Green, was a distant cousin of Tomás, also part of the Argentina British oligarchy, and Belinda had made it a point to keep friends where Tomás himself had no interest. She had served tea to Emilia, she had ingratiated herself to the fat cow who ate all of Belinda’s Napoleons in one fast swoop. “Mine, but this weather does make us all hungry,” had said Belinda, serving tea to the old cow. It was always worth keeping up with the British; why, Peron himself was more than 50% Scottish.


As I’m driving home from Moder’s party, I can’t help but think about my own childhood. It was lonely, mostly, just always by myself.


Shut up Moder. Let me tell you how I saw it.

I was playing in the garden. It was sometime in 1966; I don’t remember the exact day or month. I do remember that Moder was inside the house, entertaining a fat lady, serving her Napoleons. Maybe this had been the day or week or month before, I don’t remember. I remember the Napoleons, however, and how I wished I would be allowed to stay in the house and have tea with the ladies. I was ordered outside.

There was no one for me to play with. Florenica, the only kid in the neighborhood who would consider speaking with me, was away at a cousin’s birthday party. Her maid sent me home packing, told me I should call in advance before simply showing up at their doorstep. I was not allowed inside the house, not while Moder was entertaining, so I stayed outside, playing by myself. I looked for snails and worms in the ground. They always come out after the rain, and it had rained all day the day before. Moder would be furious at me for dirtying my pants and my shoes, but I did not care. I examined each caracol, each snail, closely. Other boys thought these creatures were disgusting, I did not. It’s funny because I’m usually the one considered prissy, neat, and yet I’m the one that will dig into the dirt to pull out these little icky creatures. The worms I will dissect, because I have been told that if you cut them in half they will grow a new tail. I don’t know if it’s true, but they continue to wriggle. I see them wriggling. I admit I enjoy their pain.

I am knee deep in mud, dissecting worms, playing with snails. I do not face the sky. There is a rainbow above the house. It has stopped raining not too long ago, and the Buenos Aires sun is always brilliant and always causes a rainbow after the storm. I am tired of looking at rainbows, so I take no heed. I can imagine it in back of me, imagine that it is illuminating my dark spot in the ground so that I may better examine my catch.

There is a shadow. I did not expect any shadows as it seemed to me that whenever there is a rainbow there are no clouds. The shadow is in the shape of a butterfly, except that it cannot be a butterfly for it has a crown. The wings are spread wide, causing a shadow over the entire grounds, the crown is small, but prominent, the same as the Virgin Mary wears in the altar at San Ignacio Catholic Church. I turn around. I look into the sky and I see, I know I see, a butterfly with a gold crown. I am sure of this. I am certain that I saw this at age 9.


The beginning of the violence.

Belinda heard the shots. There were cannons, rifles, armored truck machine guns. The noise was unmistakable. She knew it came from downtown, from the congressional seat, el Palacio del Congreso. It always seemed odd to her that the elected government representatives housed themselves in a palace. It was now official, thought Belinda, the Congress is shut down. Almost as if in a premonition, but more out of experience and knowledge of her country’s history, Belinda knew what to expect next. The streets would be closed off to allow Onganía’s military trucks to parade though the center of the city, el Centro. Onganía would make a speech about the necessity’s of the nation’s stability and wellbeing “necessitating that the president be required to step down and the nations’ military branch step into power for a transitional period to battle the communist insurgents and those who would wish to cause harm to Argentina’s economy and well being.” For good measure, parts of the shanty towns, las Villas Miseria, would be demolished. Meanwhile, Emilia Green would continue to visit her husband’s political suitors, those who sought to ingratiate themselves to the military, and she would enjoy her Napoleons.

The boy came running into “el living room,” anxious to tell his Mother about a silly butterfly he thinks he has seen; a butterfly with the crown of the Virgin Mary.

Belinda could not abide by such nonsense. It was not masculine. Against her will or better judgment, she slapped him across the face. “No seas maricón,” she told him. The minute the words had escaped her well rouged lips she had regretted it, but she never asked for pardon nor changed her ways. Many times after that she corrected her effeminate son whenever she felt it necessary. A certain slap across the face, an occasional hard paddle across the buttocks, sometimes worse – worse – was certainly not unpardonable. “Not in the long run,” she came to think in her old age. “Not when you consider what I saved him from.”

Belinda turned on the radio, to hear the new “president” (General Onganía, who had taken power of government by force) deliver a speech:

“The Argentine armed forces, whose duty it is to protect our precious nation's liberties, cannot stand aside and watch our patient and generous people suffer a state of anarchy. This, our revolution, will strive to heal the divisions of our people as well as restore Argentina’s deserved grandeur in the eyes of the world.”


I’ve put the kids to sleep. They got very cranky in the car, they always do when they play all day without break. I wish I had left Moder’s house earlier, given them more time to unwind before I put them to bed. Still, I finally have them in bed and now I can sit back and have a drink. My time alone, at last.


The beginning of the violence as I saw it.

After Moder slapped me, I went to my room to take off my school uniform. I thought about the other kids, the other Anglo-Argentines who attended St. Andrew’s School of Scotts with me. I hated them. I called it St. Andrew’s School of Hell. Tomás Humphrey, my father, liked the idea of indoctrinating English manners in his descendants. Belinda, my mother, liked the discipline, the uniform, the strictness. “Why do you send your son to that school,” had asked my grandfather, Picho Gonzales, indifferent to the supposed academic standards of the overly-priced institution in Vicente Lopez, Buenos Aires.

“They will teach him to be a man,” is what she told him.

Masculinity. Above all, my Moder adored masculinity. If she would not, should not, dwell in the realm of medicine, reserved exclusively for Argentine machos (as Picho had succinctly phrased it), then she would at least ensure that her son would play the role. I would be brought up right, brought up straight.

Tomás Humphrey, my father, was ignorant of Argentine ways. In 1966, immediately after General Onganía took over the government and did away with all democratic institutions, my father was invited by the military to become part of the leadership by partaking in a group of commissions supposedly representing the country’s diverse economic interests in the dictator’s cabinet. My father refused. My Moder had gone through extraordinary means to set up a potential cabinet assignment for my Father, only for him to turn down the offer. Onganía did not take the refusal well. My Father was in a precarious position. His appointment as a member of the Camara de Diputados was over, he had no ministerial assignments, he had no prospects of future employment. He resumed his law practice, but few clients were interested in giving him their business. He had no more connections, not the right leanings.

On July 29, 1966, “La Noche de Los Bastones Largos” (the night of the long sticks), the Argentine army swept upon the campuses of all the major universities in the country. Hundreds were arrested and tortured. The military sent a clear message.

People heard the shootings that night. Decent families closed their windows and put the radio on louder. Just taking care of business. As a child, I did not hear the shots. I slept through history. All I remember is the morning after, Moder pacing restlessly through the kitchen, asking the maid whether she is sure she locked the doors. “What is it Moder,” I asked. She looked at me astonished, not knowing that I was capable of sensing her, watching her. “Nothing child. I simply had a dream last night.”

“What was the dream about?”

“Blood, child. I saw blood on the streets.”


The phone is ringing. I know who it is. She always calls after I visit her, wants to make sure that I got home ok and that the children had a good time. Why does she do that? “Yes Moder,” I tell her, “We all had a wonderful time. Thank you for helping the children put on a play; they really enjoyed it.” We chat a few minutes. I hang up the phone and turn on the TV. There’s a news story about the Argentine economy. I change channels. I don’t want to hear anything about Argentina. It hurts too much.


Bebe Lorenzino, as I saw her.

Moder, of all places, turned to her Canasta crowd. Bebe Lorenzino, the president of the canasta club, was married to a heart surgeon for the military. He was of Italian descent, thin, short, droopy mustache. He was rumored to be gay, and in fact was quite effeminate. He was also one of the best heart surgeons in the country, and had curried favored with many in the military whose heart could stand a few pumps, tweaks and teasing. The cold hearted bastards had weak tickers, and the fag Lorenzino was just the man to make them right. Bebe was a bleached blonde, blonde perhaps by birth, long legs that began where the ankle meets the heels and finished in what seemed to be unimaginable heights well into her skirt. The skirts were always short, her nails always red. I suppose it is not possible that she was always smoking, but I do remember her with a cigarette in her lips, the smoke hovering close to her painted blue eyes. She was gorgeous, by the then standards. She was also much in need of a fuck. Her two children, both blonde and good looking, were fathered by her now deceased first husband. Lorenzino gave her no dick; he gave her prestige and money instead. He also gave her respectability of sorts, the type that only in a military dictatorship would be appreciated. Bebe had very little education, but she had connections and ambition, and for this she had to be admired. Plus, she was pleasant to look at. Pleasant even for her fag husband, for little boys like me, for housewives of the Vicente Lopez Canasta Club.


I’ve drank too much. My head is spinning. Not a good thing. I can’t remember if I ate anything. Tomorrow is school day for the kids, work for me. I’m going to call in sick. These festivities, these family gatherings, they wipe me out each and every time. I take off my clothes, I will sleep naked. I floss and brush my teeth first; even when I’m drunk I know that I need to take care of these pearly whites. It’s my one good feature. I conk out.


Being with Bebe.

Bebe and Belinda went out for a drink after a Canasta night. As usual, Bebe had won the round, and had a few coins to show for it. Belinda was uncharacteristically quiet.

“What’s going on with you?” asked Bebe, as she lit a cigarette. She was simultaneously looking at the man at the end of the room.

Belinda is not accustomed to being in bars. Bebe has ordered her a whiskey, and Belinda is sipping it slowly. They are sitting at a table next to the back wall. Belinda feels hot. She takes of her hat, her gloves, places the white pocketbook on the table and takes another sip of her whiskey. “Things are funny around here, aren’t they Bebe?”

Bebe is still looking at the man across the room. She has lit a cigarette, and is not looking at Belinda. She is listening however. “In what way funny?” she asks. “Is this more about that nonsense you were talking about during the game?”

“How do you feel about it Bebe? How do you like the military?”

Bebe still does not look at Belinda. “I’ve asked you not to ask me such things. Some things one just has to learn to live with. Lorenzino does alright, he’s friends with them, and it’s good for his practice. No need to worry.” Bebe now puts out her cigarette and turns her face to look at Belinda. Such a handsome woman, thinks Belinda.

Bebe smiles. She knows what Belinda is thinking. “I need a favor,” says Belinda. The waiter approaches the two women, asks them if they want anything else. Bebe shoos him away, tells him to come back later.

“What sort of favor?” asks Bebe, except it is not a question, it is a statement, acknowledging that a favor has been asked and that Bebe needs more information. There is no suspicion or curiosity in her question. Belinda notices this; the lack of curiosity, the accepting that strange things will be asked during strange times. She wonders if all Argentina women are this way. She has seen it in herself often.

“Tomás is in trouble.” Belinda knew better than beating around the bush with Bebe. Again, Bebe has no reaction. She sips her Cherry Martini. She has already heard about Tomás turning down Onganía's offer to participate in government. A very foolish man, she had thought to herself. So had many others. “I know,” says Bebe.

Time to put all cards on the table. “I’m afraid,” says Belinda. “I don’t have the stomach for this, I don’t know what will happen to us. I thought perhaps if Tomás could get a diplomatic assignment, maybe to the U.S., then we would go away from all this and . . .”

Belinda cannot finish the sentence. She has not given the subject more thought than simply wanting to get away. She has no idea what would become of them in the U.S., what would become of Argentina. She has dreamt of blood in the streets, and the dream to her seems a reality. She must act upon this reality. This she shares with Bebe. Bebe has always been fascinated by dreams and omens.

“Very interesting,” says Bebe. “But I’m not sure what you want from me.”

They are playing a game. Belinda knows that Bebe knows. Bebe’s husband, Lorenzino, is a close friend of Onganía. Lorenzino can put the idea into Onganía's head, move Tomás to a consulate position in New York, get him out of the country and help out the bloke. Tomás is known for being a smart man, he would do well in the consulate. Bebe in fact has already formulated the same thoughts as Belinda, but there is the question of payment. Bebe likes Belinda, but why not benefit from the situation? Make it a win win situation. Belinda has all that furniture, Danish, modern. Bebe does not. Belinda is not going to need all that furniture in the U.S., in fact, it would be foolish to move the furniture. It would simply get damaged in transit and no one would benefit from that. Why not leave it to Bebe? Bebe would take care of it, along with all the other contents of the house, and when Belinda returns (if she returns) it will all be there for her. Belinda listens to Bebe as Bebe explains this rational argument

The price of a ticket out of the country, thinks Belinda. It’s small, she could have asked for more.

* * *

The constant violence.

On May 29, 1969, the Argentine army fell upon civilians marching in the streets of Cordoba. The army was instructed to open fire as if fighting a foreign enemy. Students and intellectuals engaged in peaceful protest, others looted stores. Fires burned down a major part of the city. The military blamed the rebels, the rebels blamed the military. The war between the military and the people lasted for three days. The events were filmed and presented by the government on national television throughout the country. “El Cordobazo” as it came to be known, left in the dust any belief that General Onganía would be a benevolent dictator.

Moder and Father did not speak of these things, not in front of us. I remember seeing the news reports, but Moder turned the TV off quickly. All she could say to us is that things were not good, not good at all. “Is it your dreams Moder?” Yes, the dreams. “Did you see blood in the streets again, Moder.” Yes, that was the dream. I was afraid and fascinated by the dream. I did not know what it meant.


I have told my current Reggie of what it was like when I left Buenos Aires in 1969. I was 11 years old. We have had a running argument as to whether it is possible that I have these memories, for he assures me that no 11 year old would remember such things. I disagree with him.


When I left Argentina.

I remember the year we left Argentina, 1969. I was 11 years old, old enough to have strong memories, though Moder does not know that. When we speak about it these days, now that she is 81, she believes that I remember nothing of those days. She is wrong.

I remember that Moder, for the first time in her life, felt penniless. In 1968, a year before we left the country, Picho had died, and left her nothing in his will. It all went to an illegitimate some she had never heard about – that and to his gambling debts. In 1967, a year before Picho died, Moder had given birth to the twins, Xavier and Gabriel. The many dresses she had accumulated during the years did not fit her well. Her body had changed, as had her circumstances. In 1969, she felt trapped, nowhere to go. I remember it, I felt it.

Bebe came through with finding Father a new job in New York. Moder thought I knew nothing of this, but the walls have ears, the children will always listen. Father argued for a long time with Moder, he did not want to move to New York. But Moder, always the pragmatist, pointed out to him that he had no other options. Even if it were not for the fact that he had no other job in Buenos Aires, she would leave the country without him if need be. She spoke again of her dreams, of blood in the streets. I remember this conversation and I remember also hearing shots in the outside air. I don’t remember if these happened at the same time. I imagine not. The adults would never acknowledge the shots in the air.

Father went to New York by himself, six months in advance of Moder and the kids. Disoriented, without Moder to tell him what to do, he rented a one room apartment in West New York. He commuted daily to Manhattan, by bus. His job at the Argentine consulate was prestigious in title but low in pay. He had definitely settled for a more modest living in order to escape Argentina. He was conscious of his obligations to his wife and three children in Buenos Aires, and sent them money whenever he could. However, after rent, taxes, commuting expenses, there was very little left over to send back to Argentina. Certainly not enough to buy passage for the family, and not enough to maintain Moder at the living style she had grown to expect.

In the last six months in Buenos Aires, my brothers and I kept going to school every day and finished out the school year. We also helped Moder pack trunks full of valuables, but the trunks would not make the trip with us. Bebe’s generosity in assisting Father obtain a position in New York had come at a price. All contents of the house, less whatever small memories Moder could scurry on a carryon bag. Moder chose her whiskey tumblers to bring with her. They were good crystal

After making promises and business arrangements with Bebe, Belinda booked passages for the family to New York. Thanks to diplomatic immunity, neither she nor the children required visas. Everyone embarked on Aerolineas Argentinas from Ezeiza Airport (near the Villa Miseria) to Kennedy Airport (near the burnt out ghettos of the Bronx).
Father picked us up at Kennedy International Airport. Moder was holding Xavier and Gabriel. No one was holding me – the oldest one – I was old enough to take care of myself. Xavier and Gabriel were three years old, so it would not have been unreasonable to expect they would recognize their father. They did not. They looked at Tomás in bewilderment, as tears ran down Tomás’ cheeks. He had lost much weight in the six months, and had aged considerably. He was no longer the handsome young attorney that Moder had fallen in love with. “He is weak,” thought Moder, as she handed me Xavier and Gabriel’s hands. She approached Tomás, not knowing whether to kiss or slap him. She did neither. Instead, she held him in her arms as a torrent of tears fell down his cheeks. “I have missed you so much, Red” said Tomás to her, barely in a whisper. And so Belinda took over the family.

These things I remember from 1969, from when we left Buenos Aires, but Reggie does not believe me. I have not told him everything, for he will dispute some of the details. He will deny for example that it is logical that the only thing my Moder packed when she left Buenos Aires were her crystal whiskey tumblers. More fervently, he will deny that these are real memories, that it is not possible that I should recollect such detail. Perhaps he is right, perhaps the detail comes from Moder’s own lips, or her veins, or her mind and my imagination. They are still real memories. They are what I recollect.

* * *

It’s been a restless night. I must have grinded my teeth all night long, because my jaw feels as tight as a wood clamp. Christina and Joey, as usual, got up at 6 A.M., clamoring for breakfast. “Can’t you make your own?” I asked them, still half asleep, as they jumped on top of my bed. “Depends,” says Joey, “what do you have?” There’s waffles in the freezer, syrup in the pantry. I regret later having given them permission to make breakfast. The kitchen looks like a tribe of a baboons has rummaged through it. “Dad,” says Christina, “would you like us to make you some waffles now?” There’s syrup all over her school uniform. I wipe them both up, get them into clean clothes, and drive them to school. “I love you,” they both say as they get out of the car in front of Bethesda Hills Elementary. “Sure,” I say.


Life outside of Argentina.

After high school, after getting married, Moder continued with her studies to obtain a teaching degree. She excelled in all subjects, and was encouraged by her professors to commence teaching as soon as possible. She refused. She had earned the degree only to show her Picho that she was capable of doing it and being married at the same time. She had no actual intentions of teaching . “You will regret it, “ had told her Sister Paulina, who had encouraged Belinda Ana to get her teaching degree. “You will regret not having taught.”

Now, in the United Sates, where she would have liked to teach, no one would have her. Her Argentine college degree, her master’s and doctorate, were meaningless in the United States. She would have to go back to school to earn an American teaching certificate. There was not sufficient money in the family budget to pay for her to go to college. Things were better now that they were maintaining one household (in the New Jersey suburbs), rather than two (one for Tomás in West new York and one for Belinda and the kids in Argentina). Still, Tomás’ salary was not significant, and every expenditure had to be weighed and measured. Both Belinda and Tomás could see the benefit to their incomes and their lives if Belinda were to teach, but Tomás could not see how to pay for tuition. There was nothing left to sell, no more jewelry to barter. “I’ll have to take a job doing whatever,” said Belinda.

* * *

Her perfect tumblers.

There was nothing left when we left Buenos Aires and came to the United States. There was the prestige of Tomás’ diplomatic assignment, but that barely paid the bill. There were no more maids, no latest style Danish furniture. No trips to Mar del Plata or Paris. At night, it seemed to her that all that was left of that prior life were the whiskey tumblers. They were made from cut and etched glass, with a flower and leaf pattern. Two sides of the glass had an etching of a rose, the other side leaves with thorns. The glasses were heavy, substantial when held by one hand, and Belinda liked the feel of the weight. She liked feeling the bottom of each glass, which was cut with an eight point star. Against the light, when held just at the perfect angle, the glasses displayed a hint lime green color. They were sheer perfection, in excellent condition, no chips, no cracks.

* * *

The perfect tumblers.

She loved the way the ice crackled in the glass, the whiskey swishing like sea waves, the tranquility poured from the glass and into her throat and then in a few minutes into her nerve system. It was then, those times, that she escaped the reality of their small rented house. She put on slippers, a ridiculously frilly nightgown, a somewhat worn out but still stylish robe that her mother had managed to send to her from Argentina, and she read poetry, while listening to classical music on a rickety radio. The reception was poor, and sometimes the music would fade in and out, interrupted by static, which sometimes to her seemed other worldly.

She loved these few movements of tranquility, always after the whiskey, in which she could reconstruct at least in her mind what had been hers when she was still Picho’s daughter and the illusion of what her life should have been in Buenos Aires.

Belinda in the United States took a job working at a factory at night in order to be able to go back to college.

* * *

I’m driving to work after all. I would have like to have taken the day off, blame it on my hangover, but there’s no way I can swing that. I know my schedule, the meetings lined up for both the morning and the afternoon. No fun working a company that’s trying to negotiate with all its creditors. All of them feel they can express their disdain towards us, by taking it out on me, the bankrupt company’s attorney. I take it with a smile. I’ll drink again tonight. Before I go into the office, I look at myself in the car mirror. I flash that smile. Good thing I remembered to floss last night. Wouldn’t want to lose these gems.


El tacatacatac.

“Tacatacatac That’s how Belinda described the noise of the frozen food factory where she worked at night. The machines were in constant movement, 24 hours a day. The noise was defining. All of the workers were Hispanic, mostly Cubans and Puerto Ricans. More than a few were illegal from Mexico or South America. Being able to communicate with the workers was a primary responsibility for the quality control manager. That was Belinda’s title. Even though she had still not finished college in the US., the owner of the food factory, Don Romani, was perfectly happy to change Belinda’s knowledge of a few basic scientific facts that would allowed her to run food control tests on the frozen products that came out of the assembly line. Besides speaking Spanish, which would allow her to communicate with those assembly line Spics, Belinda was an attractive woman. Don Romani was not against an occasional squeeze of the shoulders, pad on the buttocks, arms around the waist of a beautiful woman.

“Tacatacatac.” That’s all that Belinda would report back home of her overnight work at the factory. She would not tell Tomás or his sons, her sons, of the advances made by Don Romani. In some humiliating way the advances were flattering, a reminder that she was still desirable, but in an overwhelming way they were reminders of how much she had lost. Even here the atrocities of the Argentine military have affected my life, thought Belinda. She would not however stop working. Her determination to change the illusion was strong. During the day she continued to go to college and eventually would graduate with a teaching certificate. Then she would teach and life would (she believed), regain some semblance of normality, some proximity to what she had always aspired. Until then she would work at the factory and endure Romani’s approaches. Tacatacatac.

Belinda was drinking whiskey from her cut glass tumblers. She had finished her reading assignments for the week, and had a couple of hours before she had to get to work. This was the bewitching hour, the only time of day in which she could get lost without any sense of responsibilities. The ice crackled in her glass. She loved the sound of it. Xavier and Gabriel were outside playing with the neighborhood kids. She could see them from the window. They played on the paved courtyard at the back of the public school, directly across the street. They were playing football, American football, for which Belinda did not understand the rules at all. At least with European fútbol she understood the concept of chasing the ball and trying to kick it into the goal. She could not understand heads or tails what the aim was with American football. Why did the children seem to huddle every five minutes when playing this game? Where they engaging in gossip? I just hope they don’t get hurt against the pavement as they jump up trying to catch that funny looking oblong ball, thought Belinda. She was glad that Xavier and Gabriel were adapting to American customs, American life such as it was. Where was the other boy though? Why was he not playing with them? He was such a difficult child, always doing the most unexpected things. Why couldn’t he be more like herself? More like her father? She worried how he would turn out, now without even the benefits of a strict private school education to hem him and straighten him out. She sipped her whiskey, listened to her ice crumble.

The house was quiet, the boys outside, Tomás in the basement working on his dictionary that he will never finish. There was a creaking sound, though, and Belinda couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. At first she thought it was the ice crackling, amplified and distorted by an echo. But she quickly realized that the sound was coming from one of the bedrooms. Normally she would have ignored the sound, not being one to be distracted from her drink, but her instinct tells her that this needs to be examined. Xavier and Gabriel were outside, Tomás in the basement. “Where is that fag? Donde está el maricón?” The noise was coming from his bedroom. Now she feared something unnatural, like the sound itself. Her first instinct was to let it be, to leave the doors to his bedroom closed and never find out what was happening. Her stronger instinct, the one she would always listened to, caused her to slam the door open, suddenly wide open, exposing the boy. The boy was on his knees, naked, with a much older boy (a man, really – a hirsute teenager, well endowed she noticed) sticking his dick into her son’s mouth. Her son was sucking, sucking, sucking. Even from only the short glimpse of this scene, Belinda knew her son enjoyed it. The older boy, the teenager (a man, really, if truth be told) was the first to notice Belinda. He quickly pulled his dick out of her son’s face and grabbed his clothes. Her son was too stunned to react, he simply sat there bewildered, saddened that his fuck fest has ended. Belinda said nothing, she simply stood by the door, as the teenager ran past her, out the front door, his sneakers carried hastily in his hands, his pants unzipped, his shirt barely covering his hairy chest. He fled down the street, never to be seen again. Belinda had never seen him before. She suspected, correctly, that he was from another town, simply passing by the neighborhood, checking out the local bus depot where he had happened upon Belinda’s oldest son – a handsome boy who invited him to his house. All this Belinda knew instinctively and immediately, for she had seen such things; she knew of such boys in Villa Miseria. She knew they existed; but not in her own household.

The teenager got away. Belinda’s son was not as quick or as lucky. Belinda grabbed him by the hand, firmly, not gently, threatening, not consoling. He was 12 years old at the time. The act his mother had just seen him perform was adult like, at least in her mind, but he was very much still a child. He was frightened now, afraid of what her mother would do next. His childish heart called out for help for the only creatures he knew – his father, his mother.

His mother screamed. She called out for her husband at the top of her lungs. You would have thought someone had tried to commit murder. “Tomás!” she screamed. The loudness of her voice resonated out the doors of the house. Xavier and Gabriel heard it from across the street, and they came running back inside. Summoned witness to what followed.

* * *

Dirty war. La Guerra Sucia.

During those years when we were growing up in New Jersey, Argentina was engaged in the Dirty War. Los Desaparecidos. It does not affect us, said Moder. Except it did; we heard of friends and cousins that disappeared; we saw the country stumble as its economic debt, benefitting only the military, grew. It was in our bones. We had left Argentina, but we had brought the violence in our veins.

Moder was right about her dreams. Those early days of Onganía were child’s play compared to the later violence. It infiltrated us, it stayed with us, it was as if the military was part of who we were.

* * *

Turning 81 in 2008.

Belinda is now 81 years old. Not beautiful anymore but certainly very much still a lady. She is proud of what she and Tomás have accomplished in this county. Her career teaching English as a second language to immigrant children, Tomás leaving the diplomatic forces and joining a consulting firm where he was well compensated and finally appreciated. Her three sons. Her grandchildren. She isn’t one to romanticize, to look back at all that has happened. Sometimes, only sometimes, she has questions about that day; the day the loud screams summoned Xavier and Gabriel to be witnesses to their older brother’s punishment. She read his journal once, only that one, and she could not say she agreed with his recollection of what transpired. Surely the beating did not go for hours, as he claimed. Surely the belt against the 12 year’s skin did not leave as deep a mark as he claims they did, but everything is relative. If she had to do it over again she wouldn’t. But she is an 81 year old woman, not the same person who beat her son for his sexual indiscretion. She imagines he knows this. She imagines that it is not necessary to talk about it because he knows that parents do not intend to crucify their children. She imagines that if she was able to forgive her father, her Picho, her oldest son would be able to forgive her as well. Nothing to forgive, really. She meant only the best, even if he was left black and blue. Does she remember that? Does she recollect the marks he wrote about in his journal? She’s not sure, but that’s what his diary says. Is it true?


I am visiting Moder and Father after work. I promised them I would take them out to dinner, just the three of us. Gives us an opportunity to chat, without all the kids around and without my jealous brothers. Now I’m regretting having promised to take them out. Rush hour traffic from my office to their house in Reston is horrendous. I will be stuck in traffic for hours. I’ll just sit behind the wheel, and entertain bad thoughts. What a bummer.

* * *

I told my current Reggie about the beating.

I’ve told my current Reggie about the beating. I explained that when Moder screamed, shattering the silence of the suburbs with her monstrous guttural noises, I thought I would die. The tears began to fall from within me, but never through my eyes. In my mind, I was screaming – Moder, Father. Help me – but the very thought of uttering these words was nonsensical. They were the tormentors. They were the abusers I wanted my parents to rescue me from. Father started first, pulling off the belt from his pants. He had been in the basement working on the dictionary he would never publish. I know this for he wore a special pair of reading glasses for this occasion, a pair that had once broken in the middle and that he held together with adhesive white tape. He kept this pair in the basement, next to his pecking typewriter, his index and catalog of already defined words, his stack of newspaper clippings he would use to define words, his reams of white paper. Most often he simply sat in front of the typewriter, quietly, glasses with tape on face, while Belinda was upstairs either studying, or getting ready for work, or enjoying a glass of whiskey, probably more. I know he had been at his dictionary when Belinda summoned him with her unnatural scream, for the glasses were posed on top of his head. The belt buckle reflected on the glasses each time the belt came down upon me.

A child often has no concept of time. When doing homework, 5 minutes seems like five hours. When playing tag, 5 hours seems like five minutes. The beating felt like neither; it had no beginning, no end. It seemed as if it had always been, would always be – no past, no future, no time constraints. Just now, this unending, immeasurable period in which the belt bruised my body and my pleasure ceased. A red welt at the shoulders, a mark of blood at the buttocks, a slash on the back. I cannot accurately report what was said during this beating, for I was not there. My physical body was there, my 12 year old body, enduring the flagellations, but my mind was not present. I don’t know where it was. I only remember two words, uttered constantly, repetitively, by my Moder to my Father: “Beat him. Beat him.”

He obeyed.

As to the actual physical measurement of time, I must report I believe the incident took two hours. When they told me to strip entirely naked, the clock on the wall said 6:00. When they tucked me in bed after the beating had concluded, my body shaking, my teeth clattering uncontrollably, the clock said 10. Somewhere in between were the actual whippings. Was it four hours? I can’t say. I’m dyslexic and certainly at the time near comatose.

As they tucked me in, Moder showed some kindness. Maybe she was simply worried for herself. I don’t know which. She left me for a few minutes, with the light on and then came back to turn it off. She approached my bed, put her hand on my forehead. I was burning. “Why are you sweating?” she asked. I said nothing. “Do you need anything”

“Agua.” I said. “Agua.”

She got me a glass of water. “Thank you Moder,” I said, and then she turned off the light for good.


It’s 8 pm. I left the office at 5:30. Still, at least I’ve made it. It’s supposed to be a half hour trip, but there is always construction, or an accident, or simply unexplained delays. Modder sees me pull up to their driveway. She is in her kitchen. She waves at me frantically. I can read her lips, “Thank God you are finally here,” she is saying.


Putting away the dishes and getting ready to sleep.

Belinda is putting away dishes in the kitchen when her son finally comes for dinner. It has rained all day, today in Reston Virginia. Other than that, nothing much has happened. She spoke with Xavier earlier this morning, but he is so far away now, both in distance and time, that she does not understand his life. She pretends to understand, pretends to have interest in the local baseball team that Xavier has enrolled his children (her grandchildren), pretends to understand the computer basics that Michaela is learning in school, pretends to understand Xavier’s life, her own children’s lives, but she does not. It all seems so different than the life she knew when she was their age.

She is putting away the dishes. Tomás is sleeping in the other room. He has grown old, she can see that outwardly, but she believes that like her, inside, he must still be the young Argentine she feels she is. Tomás must feel the same sadness for the world they have left. But Tomás won’t say, not today in any event. Tomás won’t say much of anything. “Red,” he calls out, “a glass of water please Red?” She brings it to him, he smiles and sips, and goes to his silence. He is forgetful. He is dying of cancer, and that seems to be consuming his whole attention these days. It must be the cancer he spends his time with, for it is not with her. She kisses him. She admits honestly, to him, of being afraid of losing him. “Who will I be without you, Tomás?” she asks. “How will I survive?”

“Don’t be silly Red,” says Tomás. He still calls her Red, and it seems so ludicrous.

* * *

We had a lovely dinner. Sometimes I wonder, why do I hate this woman so much?

* **

I read her letters.

I am ashamed. The last time that I visited Moder, while she and Father slept, I rummaged through her desk. I found this letter. I don’t know what to make of it. Is Moder finally losing all her marbles?


April 16, 2008,
Reston, Virginia

Dear Son:

I am Belinda Ana Gonzales Lundsen de Humphrey. I was born in Buenos Aires Argentina in 1927. I have written to you before about my life, but perhaps you have not yet read these letters. I have not given them to you yet. I don’t know if I will ever give them to you.

You believe that you are superior to me. I sense it, taste it, experience it in almost every interaction we have. Just yesterday, when you brought your son to visit me, Joey, you kept measured looks over him and me, as if you were afraid I would beat him, distort him, corrupt him. “Joey is a very sensitive child,” you said to me, as I tried to explain to the boy the rules of chess playing. I smiled at you, said nothing. I held Joey’s hand and looked him in the eye. “Joey, do you want me to keep teaching you these rules?” The child said yes; the child said yes.

You believe that I am an old woman, incapable of learning new things. You believe that I don’t know how to interact with a sensitive child, how to work with children from this day and age who have more interaction with a computer and a TV set than they do with their mother and father, far less with their grandparents. But I proved our word, did I not? I taught Joey to play chess, and by the end of the night he was jumping those horses, crisscrossing those guards, plowing those towers and orchestrating the royal couple (the king, the queen) as if he were Machiavelli himself. Did you see the joy in Joey’s eyes when he thanked me for teaching him how to play? Probably not. You see nothing but an old lady when you look at me. You do not see how others treat me, how I treat them. You believe you know all about me, and yet you know nothing.

Dear son, was I really such a horrid mother? In those days, we all beat our children. Does that sound harsh to your thoroughly modern ears? I know it does, and for that I am sorry. It was what was expected then, it was what I was raised with. I’m perfectly aware of the new social consciousness, the antithesis of spare the rod and spoil the child. But at least I did not spoil you. Can you give me credit for that, or is it too insignificant and utterly unimportant to you? You turned out perfectly fine in the end, from what I can tell. You have a profession, you have two children that love you, you have a house in the suburbs. All very respectable, is it not? So why this moroseness, my dear son, why do you seem always so sad, so distant?

I have thought about this often, and I have my suspicions. Would you like to hear them? I believe it is because you believe that you are gay. I don’t believe you are, but I believe you believe you are. Is that clear my dear son? I believe you are confused. I believe you married the wrong woman, and she has made you the way you are. A woman should shape her husband, make her world and his life, as I did for your father. Do you remember the sacrifices I made for your father? I sold anything and everything I ever had to bring us to this country. I secured him a diplomatic position. I worked in a factory to pay my way through college. You’ve heard me describe that factory, the Tacatacatac. The interminable noise. I sacrificed.

So where are Anne’s sacrifices for you? When did she do anything to make you right? Why has she not figured a way to make herself attractive to you?

Oh, I can your face of disdain when you read these words. We’ve had this conversation before, and you have never fully answered me. You seek to protect Anne, you seek to assure me that Anne has nothing to do with your being gay. But I don’t believe it. If not Anne, then who and how? What happened to make you this way?

You think I don’t love you because I ask these questions. You are wrong. You think I don’t accept you as you are because I wonder how you came to be this way. You are wrong.

You are correct in thinking of me as an old woman, an 81 year old woman to be precise, but this old cow has learned a few things. I have learned that for whatever reason, you are in fact now gay, and that it is unlikely to change before my time here on earth is done and over with. I have learned that the only way you will ever be happy is if you have a partner. Have I told you this already? I do not recollect. I have learned that I will never question who you bring home. I will accept whatever man you find, as long as he is good to you. Good to you, son. Not the other way around. Where is this man, dear son? You have spoken of Reggie. Is that him? Is Reggie your man?

You surprised me last night when I made Argentine sausages and pastafrola. You told Joey that as a child these were your favorite dishes. “Was your mother a good cook?” asked Joey.

“Not in Argentina,” you answered. “She never cooked in Argentina. We had cooks to take care of that. But later, here in the U.S., she became a pretty good cook. Especially when she makes dishes like this, don’t you think?” You put a piece of pastafrola in your mouth, the melted quince dripping a bit on your fingers as you lick them, savoring the flavor. You smiled – you always smile when you eat sweets. You tousled Joey’s hair.

“But if Abuelita didn’t cook in Argentina, what did she do?” asked Joey.

“Lots of other things. She was a good mom. Like, she would take Xavier , Gabriel and me to the Villa Miseria, and then after that, after we felt thankful for what we had in comparison to all that poverty, she would buy us new shoes or a leather schoolbag.”

“What’s a Villa Miseria?”

“A shanty town, a ghetto. A group of houses made out of tin and cardboard. There’s no electricity, water or sewers. The stench is horrible. People live like animals, but they work hard. Many of them have simply never had the benefits of a good education or good parenting, so they are making good as best they can.”

“What sort of things did you see there?”

“Once we saw an old lady peeling potatoes. She was trying to sell them, and would scream at the top of her lungs ‘Papas! Papas!’ She was trembling, as if she had the shakes or some neurological damage. The knife she was using to peel potatoes was much too large. It was a butcher’s knife, meant to cut meat and flesh, not starch or peel. The old lady was not watching her hands as she peeled the potatoes. Instead, she looked maniacally at the crowd, hoping to spot a customer, someone who would buy her peeled potatoes. Moder and I both saw the knife as it cut into the woman’s thumb and index finger. It made wide gashes, and her hand was immediately red. The pot where she had placed the peeled potatoes looked like stew, as if she had poured tomato sauce, but it was merely her own blood. The woman kept screaming, ‘Papas! Papas!’ as if nothing had happened to her hand. She seemed unaware of her own injuries. Some people in the crowd started laughing at the old lady. Others were aghast and turned away in disgust. No one sought to help the old lady or call for help.”

“Moder told me to open the car. We were parked half a block from where the potato peeler was bleeding. I ran with keys in hand and opened all the doors to our Jeep. Moder took off her silk scarf and wrapped it around the woman’s hands. ‘Do you want to buy some papas?’ asked the old lady. Moder’s silk scarf turned red. ‘We need to take you to the hospital, querida (sweetness)’ said Moder to the hobo.”

“ ‘But what about my potatoes?’ asked the old lady.”

“ ‘Don’t worry,’ answered Moder ‘I’ll buy all of them from you.’ ”

“Moder took the woman to the hospital in her car. The silk scarf, the interior of the car, all had blood stains on them. Moder had to pay the hospital bill as they would not even see the old lady until they had assurances of payment. It took all day. We waited all day for that old hobo to get stitched up. First words from her mouth after she was released and we returned her to her street corner was ‘Where’s the money for my papas?’ Moder paid her.”

Joey did not understand everything you told him, but I did. I was surprised that you remembered that story. I had almost forgotten it myself, and you seemed so young to me back then – surely I had thought you would have no memory of this. I guess I’m wrong as to what a child can remember.

“I don’t understand, Dad,” said Joey. “Why would Abuelita take you to a Villa Miseria?”

“Because she is a wise woman,” you said to him. I heard you.

Dear son, I have written to you before about my life and I don’t know if you have read it. I have not given you the letters, and I don’t know if I ever will. I am an old woman, 81 years old to be exact. I need to let you know that in spite of what you may think, I love you. So let me ask you then, how long must I be punished for whatever sins you believe I committed against your flesh?

With love,

Your Moder.

* * *