Playboy Fiction: What She Saw

Secrets, silence and survival in What She Saw by Airel Dorfman

She didn’t know I was watching when they roughed her up that dawn. ¶ Oh, she knew I was a conscript, wasting away my youth in that regimiento, everything in my life terrible except for our one tumultuous night together on a weekend furlough. Carmina had liked me in spite of the uniform I was wearing, hoped I would do the right thing, she said, and stay loyal to the government if there was a coup, and I had answered that I prayed to the Virgin every chance I got that I wouldn’t have to make that sort of choice, promising that the next time we’d meet up I wouldn’t be in military garb.

But the next time turned out to be five days later when my mates pushed her through the door of the barracks and she didn’t recognize me. Or didn’t want to.
She wasn’t blindfolded. Later, we blindfolded everybody, right away. The sergeant told us it was for our own good, so the prisoners couldn’t ever testify as to our identity, but that wasn’t the reason we covered those eyes up, I thought. I thought it was because we were ashamed of what we were doing, we didn’t want to remember what those eyes were mirroring.

But that dawn in Puente Alto her eyes were wide open, looking groundward but oh so open, and yet she did not see me. Maybe everything happened too fast, maybe my image was distorted by her fear: a man across the room from her, in full military gear, the mere blur of a face, cheekbones smeared over with black grease. And a rifle with a bayonet pointed in her direction. If I had been her I would have focused on the glint of that bayonet, the raw steel, the possible thrust of that raw white steel. But I wasn’t her. I was standing at a distance and remained there all the while—the slaps and kicks could not have lasted more than a minute or so—and then she was gone, hustled away to who knows what hole in hell. Without my having touched her. The hands that had explored every soft slope of her skin did not fondle her in that barracks, those hands were not mine, not my lips swearing at her, not my feet probing her midriff.

If it had gone any further, I would have intervened, of that I am sure. Or that is what I told myself then, continued to tell myself for the next four months until I saw her again, have repeated the same litany during the decades she and I have spent together. This I do not doubt: I would have stopped my mates if they had gone too far. But I was spared the need to confront them. No, no, she was the one spared. At least that dawn, in that place. Later, once she was out of my sight, I don’t know, I can’t know, I wasn’t there. But then, that first hour after she was arrested, that first minute, something saved her. Something. Not me. That same, inexplicable something would bless other female prisoners over the following months, once in a while one of them would remind us of a sister or a mother or who knows what pinup goddess we adored, and just like that, we held back—but with her, with Carmina, my brothers in arms experienced that need for mercy for the first time, foretelling other moments of absolution that awaited them, all of us, in the future.

Because suddenly the hands and the boots and the foul words ceased, the urge to unbuckle belts and open zippers subsided, they all took a step back, affording her a miraculous circle in which to breathe, realize that she was going to survive.

Or maybe she already knew that. She was smart, my Carmina. As soon as she came into the room, before the first blow, she had already decided to keep her eyes averted—not only refusing to look at where I was standing, staring quietly, across the chasm of that vast space, but avoiding as well every soldier’s hungry face and lips. She had been preparing for just such an encounter, more than we had. Like all supporters of the revolutionary government, she had trained herself as the devastation of a military takeover loomed near, been instructed by comrades on how to survive, never make your captors feel bad about what they are doing, that will only urge them on to do something worse, do not provoke them into doing something worse.

All speculation on my part.I had then and still have now, 35 years later, all that time with her by my side, no way of knowing what went on in her head. Only if I had whispered to her when we first met again, revealed that I had been there and witnessed every blow, every curse, the miracle of a reprieve. Only if she had asked me directly or not even asked, just simply stated, I saw you there, I’m glad you did nothing, I’m glad that you did not endanger your life trying to save me when I was perfectly able to take care of myself. We both had to protect our future together, not let it get contaminated. What she never admitted. What I wanted to admit, it was the first thing I needed to do, come clean, when I knocked on the door of her father’s house and she appeared, worse for the wear—a broken rib, bruised breasts, a scar on her inner thigh, a fractured wrist, nothing compared with what happened to others—but alive and with a smile that did not try to hide the tooth that had been knocked out. I had called her house every day since her arrest. Always getting the same measured answer from her mother: Carmina was doing well, thank you very much. Yes, she would be back soon, again thanks for your interest, we will be sure to let her know you were this considerate. I wasn’t going to appear at her doorstep in uniform. Not when her father, the whole family, hated the military for overthrowing the president, hated them even more for what they did to the president’s followers afterward, confirmed that hatred forever when the patrol battered down their door just before dawn and carted Carmina away. And never conceded, the authorities, that she had been detained, her parents and her little sister had no way of knowing if she was alive or dead until that afternoon, four months later, when she suddenly limped her way home.

I saw it as an auspicious sign, some slight benevolence from heaven, that it was the same day that my military service ended. Both of us released at the same time.

So, yes, I fully intended to tell her what I had seen, what I had been unable to stop, what I would have stopped no matter the risk if things had gotten out of hand, presenting myself in the best possible light and yet not shirking my guilt, my dread, my anger, my disgust. That was my plan, as God is my witness. But only God is my witness—God and the band of brothers with whom I served—because she did not let me say a word, her smile was like a sweet wall, she was so radiantly happy to be breathing the same air as I was, and to see me, me and not my bayonet, me and not my helmet, me and not my camouflaged outfit, radiantly happy that I was also alive, that I had not been devoured by the same terror she had been through.

All these months I never forgot your face, she said, her only acknowledgment that anything special or terrifying had befallen her—thank you, thank you for thinking of me every day, I know you were praying for me every day, I could feel it every day—and this was true, I had not forgotten her, not for one instant, our one night fighting loneliness, starving death, those soft, feverish hours under the blanket her friend had loaned her so the winter moon that streamed through the window into that back room would hide her body from my eyes that wanted to roam over each last inch of what I hoped would be mine forever. She did not need me to shatter the one illusion that had kept her sane and unbroken over those months of prison in a place that she did not mention and I did not ask about.

We were wise enough not to let ourselves be eaten up by the catastrophe.
I’ll confess tomorrow, now’s not the right time. Except tomorrow wasn’t the right time, nor the day after that one, tomorrow kept giving way to more tomorrows and once we became engaged, once she recovered enough to repeat and explore with me what that inaugural night had offered, once whatever was shattered in the bones and bruised on her skin started to heal, when her many muscles were ready to play and love again, once her body had forgotten her ordeal enough to enjoy my body over and over again, well, it was too late. I couldn’t ruin it for her, for us.

If she had cracked open the door to the past just a sliver, offered the slightest splinter of permission for me to breach the stillness. But I had to respect her decision to keep the cobweb of her memories in the dark. At least that’s what I convinced myself of, that’s how I justified the days as they rushed by toward that wonderful morning when we married, when I was no longer wed to the army, no longer felt under orders, distancing myself ever further from those other soldiers who had pounded my Carmina and also spared her, those mates whose loyalty was all that had separated me from death if it came calling. The balm of silence. For both of us. Later, I would wonder whether it wasn’t for the sake of the children we had yet to conceive but were awaiting us at the other end of the tunnel of our life and who would have vanished into nothingness, not been given a chance even to exist if she had known what I had seen, if she had not covered up what she had endured, I wondered if it wasn’t for them that she turned her back on that dawn and the nights and days and dawns that followed, eluding the memory of the experience for the sake of our two sons and our darling daughter just as she had avoided my startled, confused, scared eyes as soon as she was marched into that room. Better that way. Or were we expected to throw our lives away like fucking crabs dragged by the tide into the sea, for her to throw me into the garbage, for me to throw her into despair, throw away our one stab at happiness, was it fair to demand that we grind out our existence remote from each other forever and ever because I had been unlucky to get conscripted six months before the military coup, she had been unlucky to have a malicious neighbor who accused Carmina of revolutionary activities as a way of getting back at her parents for putting up a fence that choked off the sunlight from his squalid next-door window? Was it our fault that we had been born in this country at the asshole end of the earth?

But we were wise enough, just like the country, just like the country that kept waiting for democracy and elections to return, she and I and everybody else, we were wise enough not to let ourselves be eaten up by the catastrophe.

If I were haunted, it would have been different, I’d have been forced to tell her, tell anybody, relieve myself. Like a bladder about to burst. But I am not haunted. No ghosts, no nightmares. Not even of their faces, those boys as they blinked into the muzzles of the firing squad. True, there was no certainty my bullet had been the one to kill either of them, I had aimed to one side with the first one, a bit above his head at the second boy. It was risky, if the sergeant, let alone the lieutenant, had suspected, if all of us had done the same thing and everyone had missed and the boys left standing, intact, alive despite the hail of ammunition, pissing in their pants but alive, I would have been the one to die next. But the first one collapsed like a heap of clothes, the second one tottered for an instant that seemed everlasting, enough for a look of surprise to cross his blackening eyes—and they were dead and I was not, I survived and have been able to forget almost everything about them. I tried not to hurt them, that’s the truth, and they have thanked me by not smuggling their voices into my dreams during the nights when I am most vulnerable and cannot defend myself against any fading memory. But neither do they hound my waking hours. Leaving me alone, those two boys, just like the others, everybody else who crawled through my life while I was completing my military service. Except for her. That I recall, I cannot help recalling how she stumbled into the room, her eyes to the floor where she was so soon to drop to her knees. Her eyes wide open as she fell.

Does revisiting that incident, does that at least disturb me? Not really. It is like watching a film starring somebody else who has the face I used to wear, the face and body she was inhabiting at the time, not me, certainly not her. Suspended far away, as if that past belonged to a stranger, to a man who died that day and will not resurrect.

Until this morning, when everything changed.

There was that insistent knock at the door. Because our doorbell wasn’t working and I kept postponing the need to fix it, I’ll get to that tomorrow, mi amor, that’s what I had said just yesterday to Carmina when she scolded me for being a lazybones.

Today was tomorrow and there was that knock. I opened the door. A woman was there. Older than her years, tangled hair that straggled this way and that and a bitter mouth twisted into what she probably thought was a smile, and eyes, those eyes that were the only thing on fire inside her, eyes that see through you because they have seen everything under the sun and beyond, eyes that once knew how to glow in the dark. She wanted to see Carmina. “You know her?”

“I was with her back then.”

“Back then?”

“Back then, you know what I mean, you’re her husband, aren’t you? Back then. Four months together, back then.”

I let her in.

She explained that Carmina was not answering her calls, had hung up on her the last two times but that she was going to see her no matter what, come hell and high water. Hell and high water, her exact words.

I told her Carmina was out shopping, did not elaborate that we ran a business from our home, sandwiches for a stand down at the Mapocho bus terminal, just cheese or just ham or ham and cheese, three kinds of sandwiches, and that afternoon we needed some more bread for the next day’s delivery.

“I can wait.”

I offered her a cup of tea, some biscuits.

She didn’t even respond with a thank you, muttered sullenly that she’d have something when Carmina came back.

Which was an hour later. All the while the two of us just sat, she didn’t say a word and I didn’t ask her anything either, that’s how much we liked each other.

Nor did Carmina seem to like her. Or didn’t like the fact that, despite those unanswered phone calls, the many times my wife had hung up on her, this woman had thrust herself into our lives, crossed the threshold that was not hers to cross or enter or question.

Carmina didn’t even greet her with a kiss or a hug or a smile.

“I already said no, Cristina. Why are you here?”

Cristina turned to me. “Your wife does not want to appear before the commission. I’m hoping you will help me convince her.”

“What commission?”

I survived and have been able to forget almost everything.
Carmina responded in a voice that was drained of all emotion. “You know what commission. The one set up by our new government to register the citizens who suffered during the previous regime, give them compensation if their complaint proves true. The Reparations Commission.”

“Oh, that one.” The woman, for some infernal reason, kept addressing me instead of Carmina. After having ignored my presence for an hour as if I had the plague. “I’ve told Carmina that what she suffered during those four months entitles her to that money. Her name wouldn’t even be published, nobody has to know that she testified. But it shouldn’t just be about the money. Her story, every story, matters. Tell her, tell her how important it is that she do this.” For one moment that lasted longer, much longer, than it had taken that boy to look down on the spread of blood reddening his shirt, for one eternal moment, I hesitated. Then I said, “You tell her,” and I left the room. They were in there for a couple of hours. Or maybe it was less. Who knows how long it was?

I stayed in the kitchen, cutting the rinds off the bread, making each slice perfectly identical to the next one. Preparing the ham on one platter, the cheese on the other, making sure every sandwich would be absolutely the same as every other one, no customer should complain that they were being treated unfairly. When I was done, I went to the stove and heated up some soup from the previous day, and poured half of it into a bowl.

Left the bowl steaming on my side of the table, placed another bowl, unfilled and hollow, in front of Carmina’s chair. Allowed the steam to subside, my food to grow cold, my spoon unused. Poured the minestrone back into the pot.


I heard the front door opening and closing.

It took Carmina a while to come into our kitchen. As if she had taken a detour, as if she had lost her way, as if she needed a map to get here.

She stood at the door, looked at me.

“I can’t do it.”

I said nothing.

“I can’t do it,” she repeated the words and they did not trip on her tongue this time. “Lord knows we need the money. We could buy a car and double our deliveries.”

I nodded my head, but the nod did not say yes and it did not say no.

“And Victor could go to business school,” Carmina went on. “And Amanda could have her braces done. And a vacation, a few days by the sea would be nice.” She paused. “But it’s not just the money.”

My mouth was dry. Abruptly, my stomach growled. I hadn’t tasted a bite since morning.

Carmina frowned, ventured farther into the kitchen, saw that my bowl was empty, the residue of the soup still clinging visibly to the inside, my spoon entirely untouched and untroubled next to me on the table. “It’s not just the money,” she said again.

I wanted to say something, anything, but nothing came out.

“Maybe it’s time, Miguel. But I can’t. Not to a roomful of strangers.”

Not to a roomful of strangers. She didn’t add that first she had to tell me and that was the one thing she didn’t know how to do. She didn’t need to say it.

Just waited for me to speak.

The silence was heavy and would not stop, the silence simply would not stop.

I had to say something.

“If you could.…” I stopped. Then: “If you could, what would you tell them?”

“Everything,” she said. “Everything I saw.”

“All of it?”

“All of it.”

She walked over to the stove, lit the gas.

“I’ll warm this for you again.”

“For both of us.”

“Yes, for both of us.”

“I’d like that,” I said.

I watched her stir the pot, I smelled the soup we had made just yesterday, together.

“If you want to do this…,” I said, my voice trailing off. Watching her beautiful hand on the wooden spoon, her beautiful wide-open eyes looking down into the pot.

“Yes,” she said, not looking at me.

“Then first,” I said, choosing each word as if it had never been said before in the history of the world, “first I have something to tell you.”

“All of it?”

“Everything,” I said. “Everything I saw.”

She tasted the soup with pursed lips, did not burn herself, decided the brew was not quite ready.

“First let’s eat,” she said, looking straight at me. “Would you like to have some nice warm soup first?”

“Yes,” I said.

What else was I supposed to say?

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