José Castro Urioste
Translated by: Enrica J. Ardemagni
Artwork by Theo van Doesburg
The doorbell rang twice.
Juan Carlos was sitting in an armchair in the living room grading exams from his Introduction to Philosophy course. He looked at his watch: it was eleven on a Sunday morning. No one usually came to visit at that time. Actually, since Nela, the student who turned into his lover, had disappeared, no one ever visited him.
The apartment doorbell rang a third time.
He had moved into that apartment in Hyde Park eight years earlier. It was a wise buy, he thought, good location, with a view of Lake Michigan, not too big or too small, the interest rates were low, the mortgage payments were within reach of his university professor’s salary. He thought the buy had secured his future. Who knew if one day he would dare sell it and get another one. Just the thought of embarking on all that paperwork and the physical effort of going through the contractual agreements discouraged him.
During those years his life had passed by teaching classes on Ethics and Philosophy at one of the universities in Chicago, writing articles for specialized journals, traveling to conferences to give presentations on Hegel, Hume or Sartre. Almost without realizing it, he had stopped traveling to Uruguay, his father’s homeland. Tabaré, the last of his cousins who lived in Montevideo, had moved to Michigan before he bought his apartment in Hyde Park. So for some time now there had been no one to visit in Uruguay. And although Juan Carlos had been born and raised in Chicago, the entire history of his old man’s country beat under his skin. “Before, the waters of the beaches in Montevideo were clear,” his father Francisco used to tell him, sipping on mate. “In Malvin, or Carrasco or Punta Gorda, I used to go into the water up to my waist and be able to see not only my feet, but even the hairs on my legs. That’s how clear the water was.” That was the era when Uruguay was known as the “Switzerland of America.” The era of democracy, free press, social security. The era when Uruguay was world champion in soccer. “You can’t imagine what it was like to experience that two to one win over Brazil, right in Brazil itself. I was young, but it was a tremendous carnival. And to think that now we don’t even beat Bolivia.” Everything fell apart suddenly. A cruel reality. As if black curtains came down, and when they were raised it was a different country. “Those fascists fucked it all up,” Francisco would say, brewing another mate, and looking out the window at the white Chicago winter. Who knows how the hell everything started: was it by intercepting phone calls, or closing down a liberal-bent newspaper, or censoring some books, or torturing a university student who had no one to defend him? “But suddenly we found ourselves living in a country of fear. Anyone who had an opinion different from that of the military was beaten with a cane, tortured, or disappeared. Here in the United States, no one can understand that. Nobody. At first, I didn’t believe those things were happening in Uruguay either. That happened in other countries, but not in ours. It was your Uncle Ignacio who told me about the takeover. I answered back that he must be sleeping poorly. Later he told me that one of his students from the Department of Liberal Arts had disappeared. I thought he was crazy. Things got really fucked up, when your uncle didn’t come back. I went to his house and found everything in a turmoil: his books scattered over the floor, his papers, everything, everything. Then I went out to look for him wherever I could. We were different, but he was my brother, after all, my own blood. I went to hospitals, to the morgue, to the police stations, I even went to the mental health ward. There was no trace of him. It was winter in Uruguay, and since he lived two blocks from the boardwalk along the beach, I went for a walk there one afternoon. I thought I might be able to find an answer about your uncle there. Of course, I didn’t find anything. But I had never seen the water at the beach so rough. As if something rotten had come from the deepest part. The next day, I received an anonymous phone call: they were going to come for me. I didn’t understand why. Maybe only because I was looking for my brother Ignacio. I ended up traveling nowhere in particular. Our future was to turn into a country of fear.”
The doorbell rang again. Juan Carlos got up. He left the exams on the sofa. He didn’t know why his father’s story had come to his mind. It couldn’t be him ringing the doorbell. He was retired, and had left in the middle of the week to visit friends in Cincinnati. He wouldn’t be back until late Sunday. He thought about Nela. Could it be possible? She still had a key to the main door of the building. Could it be possible? More than once he had daydreamed that Nela came back as unexpectedly as she had left. Could it be possible? Nela, where are you? Nela, who had helped him so much, looking for the apartment and then painting and decorating it from top to bottom. Nela, who never understood why after September 11 he had become obsessed with searching the web pages of Al Jazeera. “What does that have to do with philosophy?” she asked. “Lots, because philosophy deals with what is happening in the world, and in order to understand it you have to know all points of view, that’s the good thing about this country: everyone is entitled to express their opinion.” Nela didn’t understand why she should express her opinion if no one listened. She didn’t understand why Juan Carlos spent so much time writing an article against a project that wanted to insert a chip in a person’s driver’s license allowing them to be traced worldwide. “That project goes against our freedom,” he told her. “What freedom?” “The freedom, Nela, that my father never had in his country, and that was the reason behind their killing my uncle. The freedom that allows the two of us to be here and to go out, and that lets us return home again.” But Nela did not believe in his articles or his words. They would change nothing. If they wanted to drag us away with a chip, they would do it. They were probably already doing it. “What are you talking about, Nela? This is not the Uruguay of the seventies, or Argentina. This is not Pinochet’s Chile.” That was one of the last conversations they had. After that she no longer came to Hyde Park. After that he resigned himself to letting her go. He ended up alone with his professorial routine. Alone and dreaming that one day Nela would come back and would be behind that door. The doorbell rang again. Could it be her? Could Nela have returned?
Juan Carlos approached the door, and opened it: two guys dressed in dark suits. Both were chewing gum. Both had short hair. One of them, Latino looking, was wearing sunglasses even though they were indoors. The other looked like a descendent of slaves.
“Why did it take you so long to answer the door?” the Latino said.
“Who are you guys?”
“Can’t you guess?” responded the slave-looking man.
“No, not really.”
The visitors looked at him. Then, in a synchronized movement, they showed their I.D. badges.
“Captain Carlos Garcia, from the FBI. This is Lt. Tom Jarroski. Can we come in?”
He let them in. Both looked the apartment over as if they were snooping for something.
“You know why we’re here, don’t you?” Garcia said.
Juan Carlos thought that perhaps they wanted a letter of recommendation for a student applying to the FBI. Then he remembered that last semester he had sent a letter of recommendation for Scott Peterson, a student who had been a marine and who had applied to the FBI. That must be it. Surely they wanted more information about Scott.
“Is it about Scott?”
“Scott’s fine,” said the slave-looking guy.
“Then, I don’t understand.”
“We want the names,” Garcia said.
The names? He thought there must be a mistake. They’d probably taken his apartment for someone else’s.
“Tell us the names, Professor, and that will spare us this conversation. We know exactly who you are. We know the Internet sites you visit, Al Jazeera, for example,” Garcia said.
Juan Carlos was surprised. And they saw his surprise. He would have liked to say how dare they investigate him; it was against his rights. But he suspected that would not be the best way. He also felt this was not a case of mistaken identity. He was definitely the one they were looking for. But what names were they talking about?
“We also know about your articles.”
“Are you against the U.S. government?”
“Is this an interrogation?” he defended himself.
“We know for sure you’re involved.”
Involved in what, he asked himself. He wanted to tell them he was a philosophy professor, with an average salary; it was true that he looked at the Al Jazeera web page, but that wasn’t a crime; his girlfriend had disappeared and he never heard from her again.
Nela? What had happened to her? Could she have something to do with this? Had she given out the information that he frequently navigated the Al Jazeera website? Is that why she disappeared from his life from one day to the next? Then he saw the Latino-looking guy starting to go through his books on the living room shelves.
“We also know what you lecture about in your classes. Come on, Professor, who are your contacts? Could it be that you tell your classes the government may have planned the attack on the twin towers?”
Then he thought about Scott. Yes, who else? He could have passed on that information about his classes. But doesn’t a professor have the right to free speech? Wasn’t he protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution?
“I’m going to ask you one more time to give us the names, Professor.”
Suddenly he heard several of his books crash to the floor. The Latino-looking agent had raked them off of the top shelf.
“Hey, you, you don’t have the right to do that.”
Another stack of books fell to the floor.
“What interesting readings, Professor!” he said, mockingly.
And another pile of books fell again, scattering all over.
“I forbid you to do that!” he shouted with all the willpower he had, something he had done very rarely in his life.
He didn’t know what happened when a sudden blow struck him across the face. No one had ever hit him before and he failed to recognize the feeling. He only realized what happened when he found himself face down on the floor, surrounded by his books. For a moment, he thought about his father telling him about finding all the books strewn across his Uncle Ignacio’s house. He touched his face and felt the burning spot. He realized he was bleeding. These things don’t happen here, he thought. This happened in his father’s country, in the Chile of Pinochet. We have rights here, democracy. But the pain on his face, which felt ready to burst, provided proof to the contrary.
“Come on Professor, let’s avoid all this. Just tell us the names of your contacts.”Juan Carlos raised his face and saw the lake through the window: he had never seen the water so rough, as if something rotten had come from the deepest part.
José Castro Urioste is Peruvian, born in Uruguay. His publications include: A la orilla del mundo (1989), Aun viven las manos de Santiago Berríos (1991), De Doña Bárbara al neoliberalismo: escritura y modernidad en América Latina (2006). This story is reprinted with permission from the author.