The death of dialogue, the demise of debate prompted prosperous, educated Argentine students to morph into mass killers.
Sunday, 5 August 2018
Running through the vast Palermo parks, Eugenia Taylor hummed a little tune and recalled growing up among the snowdrifts of Helena, Montana. It can’t get better than this, she thought. The agronomy student often marveled at the warm spring weather with the sweet scent of the flowering magnolias chandelling in the breeze. She made the sign of the cross as she passed the eighteenth-century Pilar Basilica and headed up the hill to La Biela, a traditional cafe in the swanky neighbourhood of Recoleta.
Sitting below a centenary fig tree, a pale but attractive man in his twenties watched Eugenia appear,her red hair gleaming in the sunshine. Soon we’ll be together, my love, he thought. You are the sexiest thing ever.
Alvaro Rojas stood up, smiled and waved at his fiancé. Who would have thought it? he wondered for the millionth time. Me, the scrawniest dumb-ass in the school, eyes so big they nicknamed me Lechuza. And then Owl Eyes gets the coolest girl: aquamarine eyes and hair in every hue of fire. We nicknamed you Testarossa and you hated it.
His face burned while Eugenia held it in her hands, kissed him and stared into his eyes. “Ay, querido! So pale.”
“Up all night.” Alvaro drew her chair.
“And I am so late.” She sat down and held his hand. “Forgive me.” At twenty-two, Eugenia Taylor spoke Spanish like a native.
“I just got here myself.” Alvaro and Eugenia argued long and hard about punctuality. Hers was non-existent. His was a compulsion.
Eugenia ordered a café con leche. “We should compare lists.”
Alvaro winked. “Do we dare?”
“I promise to remain calm.” She squeezed his hand.
“Okay. I confess. I’m nowhere near fifty guests. You?” Alvaro caught a youth staring at her and gave him a dirty look.
Eugenia didn’t notice the men’s private exchange. “I’ve managed to narrow it down to eighty.”
Alvaro chuckled and took a sip of espresso. He had trouble trimming the guest list for their upcoming wedding. Bride and groom argued often.
“My father is so amped he ordered the wine already.” Alvaro’s father owned a bodega in the northern province of Salta. Perched at three thousand meters on the Andes foothills, the bodega produced fine high-altitude wines.
“My mother booked the church and talked to padre Emilio.” Eugenia’s mother, Louise Francoeur hailed from a small town in rural Saskatchewan. Severe winters, she often said, made for organized minds.
Alvaro laughed. “My father will be hiring a band any time now.”
“My mother is choosing a dress as we speak.”
A waiter brought Eugenia’s coffee with a sugar bowl and a plate of cookies. There is not such thing as just coffee in Buenos Aires. She thanked him. The waiter nodded and moved away.
“Are we having a wedding or—” Alvaro spread his hands wide.
“It will be epic.” Eugenia dunked the cookie in her café con leche.
“We should get going, my love.”
“It’s a beautiful day. Let’s walk.” Eugenia stood up.
Alvaro yawned and stretched his back. “Only two exams to go. I’m under so much pressure, I might turn to rock.”
“I’ll ply you with wine at the party. Loosen you up a little.”
“For what?” Alvaro left some bills on the table.
Eugenia added to the tip. “Darling, for a rich boy, you are stingy.”
“I am not stingy, just fair.”
“I like your point of view.” Eugenia took his arm.
They strolled along the boulevard, enjoying the sunshine. Alvaro squeezed her hand. “So, you were plying me with wine at the party. And then?”
At the crossing, a youth zipped by them and raced down the street. Seconds later, two police cars roared by, presumably after him.
Eugenia froze. Alvaro scanned the street. “He was at the cafe, sitting beside us.”
Only a couple of months ago, a radical Marxist group calling themselves Montoneros had murdered the labor boss, José Rucci, and the killers were still at large. There was fear in Buenos Aires.
Eugenia stared after the running man. Alvaro patted her hand.
“If the police are after him, he must have done something.”
Eugenia shook her head. “At times, I feel like I ought to be tiptoeing in the city.”
“They’ve gone. We’re fine.”
Holding hands, the couple walked across the street and headed for the parks. Their mood was no longer carefree but watchful.
“I’m teaching in half an hour.” Eugenia taught English to a graduating high school student and saved every peso for the wedding.
“How is she doing?”
“Hates Hamlet; loves Romeo and Juliet.”
Alvaro chuckled. “Piggybank filling up?”
“I’ve saved a bit.”
“Good. You can finance our apartment.”
Eugenia groaned. Alvaro laughed.
The sunny mood was back.
Cristina Landau, a Chanel-clad forty something sat in a chaise longue, reading La Nación, the national newspaper. Without lifting her eyes from the page, she muttered, “I don’t want to know.”
Jorge Landau, tanned and fit at forty-five, wriggled into a golf shirt and turned to his wife. “But you do.”
“Fine. What is it?”
Jorge chuckled, removed a package from the open suitcase on the bed and pulled out an ornate silver bracelet.
Cristina peered at it without interest. “Mm. Nice.” She placed the bracelet on the coffee table, snapped the newspaper to attention and returned to her reading.
Jorge removed wrinkled garments from the suitcase and placed them in a clothes hamper.
“And how have you two been?”
“Erratic.” Cristina talked to the paper. “She’s been busy with school.”
“I think your willful daughter has finally made up her mind.”
“And you are not happy.” Jorge slipped into a pair of faded jeans and wiggled a bit, making himself comfortable in them.
Cristina muttered at the paper. “She’s like her father. She doesn’t tell me anything.”
Jorge put on leather loafers. “Where is she?”
“Locked in her room, playing the same music over and over. It’s about to drive me insane.”
“She loves Barrios.”
“She should get a life.”
“I agree.” Jorge turned to leave.
“She has not invited a friend home this year. And vice versa. What is wrong with her?”
“Nothing is wrong.” Jorge stood on the threshold. “She is a loner, that’s all.”
Cristina put the paper down. “Aren’t you going to tell me about your trip?”
“Later.” He pointed at the paper on her lap. “I’ll let you catch up with the nation.”
Cristina pursed her lips and glared at the newspaper.
Don’t argue. Make every minute count. Jorge Landau was the chief architect for a real estate developer in Bolivia. The project needed close supervision, and he knew his stay at home would be brief. He would be returning to Bolivia in a few days.
He glided into the spacious living room. There, he was rewarded with a view of the rich canopy of the Palermo parks and the river beyond, shimmering below a clear blue sky. As soon as I get back I will get us a boat. Cruise the river to El Tigre. Tati will love it.
Sweet notes wafted from a room down the hall. Jorge did a little sidestep to the beat of Agustin Barrios’s enchanting guitar. He knocked on the door.
“Daddy!” Tati Landau, eighteen, opened the door and flung her arms around her father. She kissed him, then reluctantly let go and turned the record player off.
Jorge pointed at a poster of Che Guevara above Tati’s bed.
“I’m getting to know him. But I’m not convinced.”
“That he was such a hero.”
Jorge chuckled. “Look for integrity. Then you’ll find your hero.”
“How many days this time?” Tati resented her father’s long absences.
“I brought you something.” Jorge handed her a small velvet pouch and avoided answering the question.
Tati held the little bag with reverence. She carefully removed a silver crucifix on a chain, placed it against her heart, then slipped the chain around her neck.
“I love it, Daddy. He will protect me.” Tati hugged her father.
“The communists, the fascists and the religious fanatics.” Tati twiddled the crucifix in her fingers.
Jorge laughed. “That’s a tall order, but I know he can fill it.”
“Will you be home for my graduation?”
Jorge Landau held her hand. “I have to go away, darling. I am sorry, but they need me over there.”
Tati stood up and opened the French windows. From the balcony she gazed at the trees until her disappointment waned. She did not want to spoil a rare moment with her father.
“I’ve decided to become a sociologist, Daddy. What do you think?”
Jorge Landau joined her on the balcony. “Congratulations.”
“I chose state university. My mother will hate me for it, so I waited for you to return before I said anything.”
“Your mother would rather see you study and grow in a safe environment, like the catholic university.”
“That’s just it, Daddy. Safe means away from the action.”
“But the action could be bad for you.”
“Exactly why I need to be there, Daddy. I have to know why our universities are surrounded by police while the students barricade themselves inside, why poets and professors are rotting in jail, and why there are mob scenes, riots and mass demonstrations every day.”
“And the answers are in Filosofía y Letras?
Tati nodded energetically.
“If that is what you believe, you must pursue it.”
“Thank you, Daddy. I treasure your confidence in me.”
“Are the students telling it like it is, or are they rioting for the hell of it?”
“Daddy, that’s another story.”
Jorge Landau chuckled. His daughter’s guile often caught him by surprise.
“The students want a socialist regime—one that will favor the under-privileged—you know, like what Che wanted.”
“The students will never get an agreement from the government, the farmers and the general public. You know that, don’t you?”
“That’s right, Daddy. There will be no compromise. Unless …”
“Unless we come up with a new rationale. A manifesto that will advocate rights and freedoms for all.”
“We do have such a manifesto. It’s called the Constitution.”
“Neither side wants to acknowledge it.”
Jorge frowned. “The generals have stomped on it; the socialists burned it long ago.”
“That’s the problem, Daddy. There is no compromise among the right and the left.”
“You should be a politician, not a sociologist.” Jorge Landau gazed at the variety of books strewn on the desk and scattered on the floor.
“A politician today is not worth his birth certificate.”
“On second thought, the political stage is not healthy.”
“My cozy lifestyle is no more, Daddy. There is anarchy out there. I need to know why, and what to do about it.”
“What happened to our dream, eh?”
“I want to do something to get it back.”
“My dear, capable Tatiana. You must steer your own ship and set your own course.”
“What’s with the nautical jargon?” Tati peered at the clock on the table. “Oh my, I am late for class.”
She picked up her books. Arm-in-arm they headed down the hall.
Jorge Landau opened the door, walked into the little lobby and pressed the elevator button. “How is Eugenia?”
“She’s getting married.”
“Send her my best wishes.”
“Before you go back to Bolivia—”
Jorge kissed her on the forehead. “I will talk to your—”
Hearing the strain in her mother’s voice, Tati grinned. “You are being summoned, Daddy. Good luck.”
The next day, Jorge Landau boarded a flight to Bolivia. From her balcony, Tati watched the sky. Daddy, come back in time for my graduation. Each day she kept track of time. Are you having dinner now? She needed her father like she needed a soul. You are so far away, and yet you are always with me. She frowned. My mother is always here, but the place feels empty.
A week later, Tati sat in a cozy Palermo cafe, gazing out of the window. Spring was in full swing after a nourishing morning drizzle and Pachamama bloomed in all her glory; flowers in radiant colors turned their little faces to the sun.
She looked up and smiled in wonder. Diaphanous she thought. The sky is so clear we might see God.
“Tati. Are you with me?” Eugenia Taylor touched her arm.
“I thought I might see my father’s plane. He should be landing right about now.”
“You haven’t heard a word I said.”
“Shakespeare is too intense for my brain today.” Once a week, teacher and student would sip coffee and chat in English. Eugenia patiently steered her student through Romeo and Juliet, the only play Tati liked.
“Okay, since it’s our last chat, you pick the topic. Fair?
“I hate betrayal.”
“We all do. It hurts.”
“Hamlet makes me angry; I can’t get what his problem is.”
“In matters of the heart, Shakespeare was a master.”
Tati frowned. “Hamlet is so helpless; all he has left is revenge.”
“Ah, but he gets his own back.”
Tati scowled. “His life is in ruins after he kills all the wrong people.”
“Well, thank the Bard it’s only a story.”
“Depends on your point of view.”
“Explain.” Eugenia sat back and watched Tati’s smoldering eyes.
“I see it every day—lies, betrayal, hypocrisy. What made Shakespeare a master is what he took from ordinary lives.”
Eugenia nodded. “But Hamlet is about princes and queens.”
Tati plowed on. “With or without the crown, it’s all the same. Hypocrisy leads to betrayal, and betrayal sparks revenge.”
Eugenia considered Tati’s line of thinking. “Well—”
Tati interrupted. “I choose to spend my time reading about love and loss.”
“There is betrayal in that story as well.” Eugenia watched Tati’s mood darkening.
Tati nodded. “But Romeo and Juliet are honest. Through the whole ordeal they remain loyal.”
“I see.” Eugenia “So, your dad will be here for your graduation. That’s good news.”
Tati brightened. “It is a relief. I wouldn’t want to spend it with my harpy aunt.” Eugenia’s eyebrows went up. Tati smiled wanly. “If my daddy isn’t there, my mother will enlist her sister to attend in her place. She’ll claim something like a headache or a cold. She usually does when there’s a school event."
Eugenia singled the waiter for the bill. “I’m so proud of you, Tati. I would love to be there, but my finals will get in the way.”
Tati's mood lifted. Her eyes glittered. She took Eugenia’s hand and held it for a moment. Then she shook it. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” Tati paid the bill and stood up. “I think my daddy wants a boat. He went all nautical on me before he left.” She picked up her books.
Eugenia was adept at following her student’s sudden turns and she laughed. “Sailing the canals of El Tigre, eh?”
Tati held the door open. “My dad gets wild ideas, and he follows them through. I love that about him. So ... unpredictable.” The women walked up Callao avenue, ignoring the din of traffic.
Tati gazed at the sky. “He’ll be home by now.”
Eugenia let her hair down and shook it free. “We are so lucky.” Tati laughed and shook hers. “And hairy!”
Eugenia chortled. “We have so much to look forward to.”
Tati slashed the air, as though swinging a sword. “I will be a pirate.”
“And I will be a pioneer.” Eugenia stopped at the traffic light.
Tati kissed her on the cheek. “He sent his best on your wedding.”
Tati hugged her. “And from me, all the happiness in the world.” Blushing, she hurried home.
Consumed with excitement, Tati opened the door to her parents’ condo. I wonder what treasures he brought this time.
A pack of grim faces stared as she entered the living room.
Struck with terror, Tati waded through the crowd of long-lost relatives, a wicked knot gripping her stomach. What are these people doing here?
Eventually she found Aunt Mia.
“Where have you been?” Ice crackled in Mia’s eyes.
“Where is my daddy?”
“He’s not here yet.”
“And my mother?”
“She’s out. We are trying to locate her.”
“What is going on?”
“At this point, all we know is your father’s plane had a forced landing. You should have come home straight from school.”
“What forced landing?” Tati heard herself shriek.
“We are waiting for more news.” Mia fiddled with her pearl necklace.
“What do you mean more news? He landed forty minutes ago!”
Mia turned to greet an elderly woman. Who she was, Tati wasn’t sure. The woman’s heavily powdered face resembled a mask, and the astrakhan fur she wore smelled of mothballs. Tati wrinkled her nose and waited for her aunt to reassure her, of what, she didn’t know.
While Mia chattered with powder-face, Tati’s mind developed a buzz. She massaged her temples.
Her vision blurred; she tried to move away from the women, but her legs would not obey her. She peered at her shoes. My legs feel wooden. I may never walk again.
The women ignored her. Finally, Tati willed herself to her parents’ bedroom. Taking a framed photograph of her father from the wall she stumbled to her room and collapsed in her bed. “Daddy, don’t leave me. Don’t—” The buzzing in her mind ended. The world went silent.
After a moment Tati opened her eyes and peered at her bedside clock. An hour had passed. She staggered to her mother’s room, ears ringing as though a chorus of mice had moved in.
Cristina Landau sat in the chaise longue. Tea and sandwiches lay on the table.
“Get me some tea, dear.”
Tati poured with unsteady hands. “Mother—”
Mia marched into the room. “Don´t stress, Cristina, I´ll tell her.”
“Tell me WHAT?” Tati heard herself scream.
“The plane crashed. There were no survivors.”
Tati´s heart stopped; the mice sang louder. “How—”
“We have no news about the cause of the crash. Just be patient, the lawyers will tell us in due course.” Mia examined her nail polish.
Cristina fluffed a cushion. “Did you take your father’s photograph from the wall, Tatiana?”
“I needed it.” Tati took a deep breath. The mice screamed in her mind.
Cristina glared at the spot where the photograph used to hang. “I want it back in its place.”
Bile scalded Tati’s throat. Tea stained the rug as she fled the room.
Tati Landau is based on Adriana Landaburu.
The day after, Tati arrived at the funeral home by herself. She had sought solitude by walking through the parks. Inside the dark, gloomy funeral parlour she waded through the crowd, oblivious to the whispered condolences, the words of comfort, the unwanted advice. Finally she came face to face with the monster she feared most. The coffin.
Brigadier Major Jorge Landaburu
I am sorry, Daddy. I am so sorry. Tati clamped her mouth to trap her screams. You read to me, Daddy; you sang me sweetly to sleep. She hummed some notes of Coimbra, her father´s favorite song, but the notes stuck in her throat. We listened to the cooing of the doves together. She took a step forward. Daddy! You were my guide, my protector, my only friend. She tried to touch the coffin but could not. What am I supposed to do with my feelings now that you’re gone?
Her legs gave out and she crumbled to the floor.
After the burial, Tati sat in her room staring fiercely at the wall, determined to join the eighteen selves which stared back from the jagged mirror in her mind. Focus, she reflected, gather all the faces into one and I will be all right. Graduate—
The door opened and Mia marched in. “Dear child. You have been through so much these days, I know. But you must understand that your mother cannot look after you all by herself.”
“I am not a child. I am eighteen.”
“Return home promptly after school and study hard for exams. And remember, you are in mourning. There will be no outings and no visitors. Your uncle and I are looking after your father’s business affairs. We are working very hard on your behalf and we hope you will come to appreciate it someday.”
“I will. When you’re out of this house.”
“What was that?”
“You are forbidden to lock your door. I want to check on you periodically.” Mia marched out, leaving the door open.
Over the next few weeks, alone with her books, Tati felt like the lone survivor emerging into the light after a cruel storm.The buzzing in her mind stopped, the mice quit singing; she felt steady on her feet, as though nothing could hurt her.
I think I´m growing a crust.
Days later, Tati placed an invitation to her school graduation on the dresser in her mother’s room. Surveying the clothes, shoes, makeup and jewelry scattered about the room, she frowned. Someone’s mourning period is over.
Later that day Mia marched into Tati’s bedroom. “Your mother isn’t well and is unable to attend your graduation, but I will be there for you. Which reminds me—you’d better get yourself invited somewhere for the summer holidays.”
“I am spending the summer here. I have to prepare for university and my mother knows it.” Tati growled.
“No, you’re not. The condo is for sale.”
“WHAT?” Tati scuttled to her mother´s room. “Where is she?”
Mia hurried after her. “Out. You are dining with me tonight.”
“She’s not well, but she’s out?”
“Do not question her, child. She has been through a lot.”
“But this is my home. My life is here!”
“Pull yourself together, Tatiana. Everything we are doing is for you.”
“Who the hell is WE?”
“Tatiana! Watch your language.”
“Answer the damned question.”
Mia tapped the floor with her toe. “Your uncle and I—”
“Enough! I’ve had enough of your patronizing!” Tati ran out of the room, slamming the door in Mia´s face.
At the same hour, Buenos Aires police constable, Sergio Arroyo drove carefully along Libertador Boulevard in heavy traffic. The bulky man sitting beside him watched the crowds rushing across the wide avenue.
“We should have express lanes for police and emergency vehicles.” Police Chief Lucas Frías kept a wary eye on the streets and sidewalks, trees and fountains.
Arroyo felt the chief’s stress. Several colleagues in the force had been caught in traffic and suffered terrible burns from the terrorists’ Molotov cocktails hurled through the windows. He watched the chief out of the corner of his eye and wondered how the man’s formidable bulk could contain such a gentle soul. He gazed at a young woman stumbling along the sidewalk.
“That lady is not well, Chief.”
“Put your flashers on and stop whenever you can,” Frías ordered.
“Chief, it is not safe—”
“I’ll be right back.” Frías got out and wove his way through the stalled cars.
Arroyo gripped the steering wheel and did as he was told. He muttered as he inched his way through traffic, “Chief, you are going to be the end of me.” With his flashers on, he did his best to ignore the horns blasting as he moved towards the sidewalk.
Stumbling down Libertador Boulevard Tati gazed at the flowers without seeing them, sensed the roar of traffic without hearing it, her mind roiling with rage. My mother is running my life as though I do not exist.
Her stomach heaved; she held on to a tree.
“Are you alright?” a voice rang nearby.
Tati struggled to focus on the man´s face, but her vision blurred with flashes of red, curtains of red. She saw red everywhere. “Is it blood?”
“You look alright to me. Would you like to sit down?” Chief Frías held Tati by the arm.
“I don’t know.”
“Here, let me help you.” Frías gently helped Tati sit down.
“Nothing hurts. It can´t be blood.”
“You need to rest a little.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“No, thank you.”
“My car is nearby. We can drive you home.”
“That’s the last place I need to be right now. What’s home, anyway?”
Frías thought for a moment. “Home is where we feel secure.”
Tati nodded. “Family.” Her mind cleared a little and she noticed the man’s uniform. “I’m better now. Thank you.”
“We can choose our friends—” Frías stood up.
“But we’re stuck with family.”
“Take care of yourself.” Frías walked back to his car.
Tati sat in the shade of a palo borracho, leaning on its grotesque trunk, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Mothers are supposed to be protective. Cristina is not a mother. She is a brat.
The Palermo park system was designed by French-born landscape architect Carlos Thays in the late 1800s. It runs across the entire downtown area.
In the twilight, fresh breezes lift from the River Plate and entice Buenos Aires residents to go for a stroll. Streets and avenues, parks and cafes fill with people of all ages.
A young couple pushing a pram smiled at each other contentedly as they took the evening air.
Parked near an apartment building, Oscar watched Sierra and a new recruit, Foxtrot, gently push the pram along the street.
Sitting beside Oscar was Romeo, the coach and confidant of the new recruits. Romeo spent a month training the sixteen-year-old Foxtrot and sensing her calm under pressure, he took a satisfying breath.
“That’s my girl.” Romeo had feelings for his young comrade but was not ready to acknowledge them.
Oscar kept watch on the police cruiser parked by the door of the apartment building.
Inside the modest family home, Chief Frías gulped the last of his coffee and kissed his wife, Graciela, good night.
“I will be late.”
“What kind of late?” Graciela Frías was inured to her husband’s unorthodox hours but could not resist teasing him every now and again.
“I’ll have lunch ready.”
“What’s on offer?”
“I’ll surprise you.” She held up a thermos. “Here.”
Frías took the thermos and kissed her again. “You are my angel.” He put his hat on in front of the mirror, straightened his jacket, and walked out.
From the car, Oscar watched Frías leave the building and head for the waiting cruiser.
Romeo checked his watch, silently timing the approach of his comrades, Sierra and Foxtrot. “Perfect.”
Oscar started the engine.
Constable Arroyo gazed at the young couple passing by, pushing a pram. He thought of his small children at home in their pajamas, getting ready for bed. When his boss appeared at the building’s door, he started the engine. He watched Frías nod at the young couple walking past him. The couple smiled and nodded back.
Frías opened the cruiser’s door. “Good evening, Arroyo.”
“Looks like a nice evening, sir.” Arroyo kept an eye on the young man as he stopped and bent over the pram. His neck prickled.
Seeing the young man whirl around, Arroyo screamed. “In the car, Chief!”
“Pigs,” Sierra muttered as he sprayed the policeman with bullets. He calmly watched Frias’s body slump and slide down the cruiser’s door.
Half a block away, Oscar floored the gas pedal. The engine whined and the car sped forward, ramming the cruiser and stunning the officer inside.
“Now!” he roared.
Romeo leaped out, stuck a sub-machine gun through the mangled window and tapped the stunned officer with two short bursts. He quickly backtracked and jumped in the car.
“Out!” Oscar slammed the car into reverse, then cranked the gear shift into first, second, and third.
With practiced composure, Sierra and Foxtrot pushed the pram to the end of the block. At the corner, Oscar screeched to a halt, Romeo flung the door open, and the couple dived in.
The lone pram rolled off the sidewalk and tipped over.