1977. June. They met in the elevator. For a moment, he hesitated to say hello to her. She had changed: she was blonde, with her hair tied back, and she was wearing a small pair of glasses that gave her a girlish look. The guy with her had very short hair and a clean shaven face, no mustache.
He finally proceeded to offer up a simple, inexpressive greeting:
—Hi, how are you?
The guy didn’t say a word. She fumbled for a response:
—Fine—and that was all.
When they got off on the eight floor, and once the door had closed behind them, Santiago heard the guy ask:
—Who was that?
—Just some intellectual wannabe from college, that’s all.
They had lowered their voices considerably, surely unaware of the fact that Santiago had a very good sense of hearing. “Intellectual wannabe” had hurt him, but even more, it hurt him to look at his reflection in the elevator mirror, since he didn’t even look like an intellectual anymore. In just two years, college had become a distant memory, like something that belonged to another geography. Yes, that was it, Buenos Aires wasn’t the same anymore, the places weren’t the same places, the people weren’t the same people. More than a busy city, it was a changed city, a replaced one. And he was no longer that chronic, intellectual student, passionately carrying on in the bookish search for knowledge. Now, he lived as a simple employee in a color photography lab. He also made a little extra money on the weekends as a photographer for social events. His life was that, and tons of empty free time, nothing more. His only memories of Analía were faint ones from afternoon study sessions at the coffee shop. He recognized the guy, who at that time had a grimly pronounced mustache, and would come to pick her up, always with the same rushed, mysterious air about him. He knew that they were activists, and he hadn’t wanted to know anything else; now, they would surely be living in clandestine, trying to save their lives. (He shouldn’t have say hello to them, it would not be good for him to be connected with these people). Santiago regretted his decision, albeit a bit too late.
July. The doorbell rang twice. He opened without asking who was there. They were both standing in the doorway. They asked to come in. Santiago made a gesture to welcome them in and they all sat down in the dining room. It was simple enough, they had to leave their apartment and they had a few boxes of books that they couldn’t take with them.
—Can you hold on to them for us for a few days? As soon as we get settled, we’ll come by to take them off your hands.
Santiago started to say… well, if it were just a few, because… I don’t really have much space.
—You have a storage area—Analía pointed out.
And so he remembered that his apartment had a storage area. The even-numbered floors had storage, the odd-numbered ones did not—who knows why. But he didn’t have the key, the owner had left it with the doorman so that she could pick up a few things that she hadn’t been able to take with her when she handed the apartment over to Santiago. He mentioned the issue to Analía and received an immediate response:
—We know. Ramón told us.
He had lost his last excuse to say no, and was incomprehensibly obliged to show some solidarity, to not deny them help, despite the circumstances. He finally accepted, and that night, four boxes full of books were surreptitiously lowered into the storage area, located in the basement, crammed in with two nightstands, a mattress and the other knickknacks that were already in there. In addition to the four rather large boxes, at the last moment, the guy added a brown leather bag, which he placed behind the other items. Ramón didn’t want to hold on to the key, so he officially handed it over to Santiago. He did not see them again. He found out through Ramón that they had moved two days after the fact, leaving no address or follow-up information.
August. Santiago met Malena, who soon starting staying over on occasion, especially on the weekend. Little by little, Malena became the only one to come to the apartment. She was a nice girl, kind of like a girlfriend.
October. Friday. Around two o’clock in the morning, there was a great sound, like an explosion in the hallway. Then came the voices, the screaming, the banging. Santiago jumped out of bed and ran to the door. Since he was still in his boxers, he tried to look through the peephole before opening the door to look out. A whitish material kept him from seeing out. It took him a while to realize that they had covered it up with masking tape. And so he stood there, paralyzed, trying to listen to what was going on outside. On the first trip down the elevator, they took everyone, the father and his two children. He clearly recognized the voice of the protesting man. Then, he heard a thud, a girl yelling, more blows, the first elevator going down, the door of the second one and again going down. The trips continued. They spoke quietly, but Santiago managed to catch a few words. They were taking things with them: a fridge, a TV, a few pieces of furniture. The next day, Ramón whispered the chilling details of the proceedings, in which he became an involuntary collaborator when he was forced to open the door to the apartment building. Santiago started to think about the storage room. On Sunday morning, he went down into the basement. He needed to know what had been stored there, figure out what the risks were. The boxes were no surprise. They were full of books, old magazines, generally just a bunch of things that could have been burned without thinking twice, which he would do later, along with his beloved books, in the grill on the rooftop. Finally, it was time to check out the bag. He struggled to pull it out from behind, rushed to open the zipper and immediately stuck his hand inside. Under a sweater and an old pair of pants, there were two pistols and four separate magazines with ammunition. He felt panicked. He closed the bag and went up to his apartment. His only worry, from that day on, was how to get rid of that bag. During the following week, he weighed his options, but they all seemed too risky. It would be problematic to walk out onto the street with the bag; it was too formal in style to not seem suspicious. Taking out just the weapons would be crazy
given the requisitions in force. They had stopped Santiago more than once, when he went out with the bag that he used to carry his photography stuff. He was scared, very scared, and it was logical for him to feel that way. Finally, he came up with a plan: the weapons would leave the building in an innocent bakery package. He would carry them out on a Sunday morning (on Sundays, people buy cookies, pastries, millefeuilles, sweets). Someone carrying a simple package wouldn’t seem suspicious at all. He would look for a vacant lot ahead of time, and he would throw them in there. It would have to be early, but not too early, around eight o’clock, or maybe nine, too early and he could seem suspicious, people don’t get up that early on Sundays.
Santiago took several different bus trips, even on the following Sunday morning. The 101 seemed like his best option. It would take him down to the southern part of the city where they were building a new highway that had left several vacant lots behind. He chose one close to the bus route. Then, he went across the stops near his house and figured out the best spot to get on. He timed the route to figure out what time he should take the bus, and checked the spot where he’d need to get off. The first block after crossing San Juan Avenue seemed like the best option. From there, he’d only have to walk about 200 yards down a solitary cobblestone street with huge trees lining the sidewalk. The houses were low, and there weren’t many indiscreet windows. On the corner, there was a vacant lot available for disposing of the package from either side of the corner, whichever was most convenient.
On the third Sunday of the month, he asked Malena not to come by. He gave her an excuse, saying he had to take a trip to Bahía Blanca to collect payment for some color photos, a special client, the owner couldn’t go, so he was sending him. He almost got himself into a fight when Malena asked to go with him, but it all blew over. That night, he was too tense to sleep. He waited for the morning with the agonizing feeling that they would search him that very night. But nothing happened. At dawn, and long before he had planned, he had already prepared the tray from the millefeuilles that he had bought the day before, which were sitting on a plate on the marble countertop so he could eat them once he got back. He added one more piece of white paper to the inside of the package to keep the contents from being visible, followed by the bakery paper and the gold ribbon. There was one thing he hadn’t thought of: the package was a bit heavier than usual, so he wouldn’t be able to carry it by the ribbon, but rather would have to support it from underneath, something that could seem a bit strange. But there was nothing he could do about it now. At 8:15, he got on the bus. He paid with change and sat by a window in the middle of the bus; the vehicle was practically empty. Four blocks later, a man in a suit got on and gestured at the bus driver, he didn’t have to pay for a ticket (like policemen used to do), and he walked down the aisle. Santiago kept his eyes focused on the window. The guy stopped right next to the seat, and after a few interminable seconds, he sat down next to him. Santiago gave him a sidelong glance, while the man fixed his pants in order to keep their shape in the knees. With so many open seats, he had sat down right next to him. (Could they have been following him?) Santiago pretended to look at the mirror up front. Behind them was a green Falcon, slowly following along behind the bus. Santiago was about to get off, the only thing blocking him was the body of the man seated next to him. The guy was probably about 50 years old, with an impeccable brown suit, half bald, thin. He could tell that the man had been curiously looking at him from the beginning. That is, he had been paying way too much attention to the package. Santiago’s palms
started to sweat, an unequivocal sign that he was afraid. As if picking up a previous conversation, he heard the man say to him:
—The cookies from Ideal are great. My wife loves them. Santiago nodded, and in an outpouring of unnecessary explanations, said:
—Yeah, my mom loves them, too, and since today is her birthday, I wanted to bring her a few millefeuilles.
—Oh, she’s a Scorpio.
What an idiot to have made up that part about the birthday, what the hell did he know about that day, and what if it was a trap? So, he took a risk:
—Yeah, but I don’t know much about horoscopes.
Arduously, Santiago felt tortured by the conversation, he expected the man to take out his weapon at any moment and hold him at gunpoint. The guy just kept going.
—You’re from Once? I live in…
When he finally made it to the bus stop, he felt for a moment like the man was going to get off with him, but no, he just changed seats, settling in behind the driver’s seat. The Falcon had disappeared at some point along the route. He could finally breathe easy.
Those two blocks were never-ending, he had to walk normally and arrive right at the corner of the vacant lot at a moment when no one would see him. A woman dressed in blue walked in front of him. No one else was on that street. He thought that he shouldn’t pass her, at least not before getting to the corner, because she might see him throw the package in. He matched his pace with hers. He also had to check behind him, discreetly, to make sure that no one was coming out of any of the neighboring houses. He got lucky. The woman turned at that very corner, and with a single movement, he was able to throw the package over the wall. He turned immediately, quickly passing the woman, then zigzagging for several blocks, continuing south, allowing his nerves to calm. Now, he had his life ahead of him.
Half an hour later, he was at the bus stop waiting for the 101. The bus arrived, he nimbly jumped on, and after paying for his ticket, sat down relaxed behind the driver. At the next stop, the guy with the brown suit got back on the bus and walked straight towards Santiago, purposefully sliding his hand under his jacket… and with a serious expression, he said:
Santiago clumsily searched his pockets until he found the scrap of paper, and still confused, stretched out his hand. And while the guy stared into his eyes, punching the ticket, he heard him ask:
—Did your mom like the millefeuilles?