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It rained that night, and it made all the difference.
In her dream she was on a boat, and the wind and the ocean mist fanned her face, even though she had never even seen the sea. But when she opened her eyes, she realized it was just the rain, trickling slowly in heavy droplets that settled on the innermost corner of the open window before sliding lazily onto her pillow, which lay directly below.
It was very cold.
With a sigh, Rita peeled off the heavy blankets and knelt on the twin bed, the mattress thin and hard under her legs. She opened her arms wide, and with each hand grabbed the heavy wooden shutters that, when closed, sealed off her bedroom completely from the outside world.
They lived in the second-story apartment of a small, three-century-old structure of white stucco walls with its wooden windows and doors painted a dazzling blue. It was a home of long, dark, narrow hallways and cramped rooms with creaking floors. There’d come a time when these same homes would become trendy, when the wealthy people from nearby Bogotá would start scooping them up and remodeling them, tearing down walls and putting in new wooden floors and vast skylights that made up for the undersize windows. But right now her family’s threadbare, lower-middle-class existence was evident in the scratched floors, in the living room with the worn, plastic-covered couch, in the bathroom—shared with her little brother—that housed a sad, square shower with broken tiles and a white sink with a perpetual brown stain around its edges that refused to go away even with the most abrasive detergent.
Downstairs was her father’s modest sundry shop, right off the main square in this town of expansive landscapes and small imaginations. She knew the minutiae of every client and neighbor: the notary public across the street who paid for his daughter’s school supplies with public money; the pharmacist who still didn’t know that his wife dyed her hair because she ordered it straight from Rita’s father’s shop rather than getting it at her own store and risking her husband’s learning she was going gray; Rita’s older schoolmates, who stopped here after school to shop for condoms on the sly, paying her instead of her mom or dad; Georgie, who was thirty-five years old and still lived with his mother next door because he was retarded but was given permission to shop here every afternoon for little trifles as he looked in awe at her classmates’ legs, their blue uniform skirts hitched up high above their knees the minute they were off school grounds.
Doors were always locked here, but that still couldn’t stop the secrets from leaking outside, like a thousand little minnows set loose in the water.
This secret, though, was so quiet it could have kept for the night, at least if Rita hadn’t been up at two in the morning trying to close the window that she opened in the evenings, just to see the stars through the ornate black grille.
She didn’t hear the voices at first. She was still half asleep, still taking in the cold wetness of the dark outside. But she realized they were there the minute they stopped, and she—recognizing that something had changed—looked down.
They were wearing fatigues, but of course here in the countryside that could mean anything: army, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, or, worse, thugs who’d decided to scare people off with uniforms.
Rita froze, her arms spread wide, fear making her grip the windows’ edges for balance. They were standing in the middle of the damp, empty street, their faces shadowed but still clearly visible under the yellow glow of the streetlights. There were five of them, but her gaze zeroed in on only one. It was less about the levity in his gaze—she couldn’t even discern the color of his eyes from the window—and more about the narrow, aquiline nose visible underneath his cap, the confident arrogance of his stance.
He smiled when he met her eyes behind the bars that shielded her from him, a bold smile of utter self-assurance—the assurance that comes from being armed and in a group and… simply from being assured.
Rita hurriedly shut the windows, fumbling with the old latch but finally managing to secure the lock, then sat back on the bed, stunned and scared. Armed men in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night, casing the town. Whoever they were, it couldn’t be good. And they had seen her. And she had seen them. She closed her eyes for a second, her pulse quickening with increasing panic. Her first instinct was to be quiet and pretend it hadn’t happened. But even at sixteen Rita knew she couldn’t do that. Doors here were locked for a reason. It was 1989, and the country was in the midst of civil strife, its rural areas dotted with pockets of violence, as unpredictable and surprising as landmines. Theirs was a false sense of security, brought by the picture-perfect landscape, the cobbled streets, the familiarity of those around them.
But always, always, there was the possibility of danger, lurking anywhere, ready to prey on a small, out-of-the-way town that boasted three overweight policemen (cousins) and no military outpost. They all knew each other here, and they had all been indoctrinated for as long as Rita could remember: “You see anything out of the ordinary, you report it.”
Rita took a deep breath and stood up, shivering slightly when her bare feet touched the cold wooden floor. She opened her bedroom door slowly, careful not to make it creak, and tiptoed down the hall to her parents’ room with growing trepidation.
She stood outside their closed door, her hand up, hearing her mother’s rhythmic breathing and her father’s loud snore. They slept in separate beds, virginal twin beds with dark blue spreads, and over each of them a simple wooden cross.
How many nights she had stood quietly in this spot, hearing the sounds of their sleep, hoping to hear some inkling of life beyond their breathing, wondering how in the world she and her brother could have been conceived in this sterile room.
“Do they really do that?” she’d asked her best friend, Jazmin, in horror when Jazmin showed her the sex-education pamphlet they distributed at the health center in the next town over. The black-and-white sketches depicted the man and the woman in a warm embrace, their mouths curved up in gentle contentment, while below, his penis clearly entered the opening in her vagina and little arrows marked the path of the sperm to the womb with cartoonish emphasis.
Rita had looked surreptitiously at her father’s crotch for days, trying to divine any sign of lust that could override the utter indifference, sometimes laced with quiet contempt, with which he treated her mother.
Even so, her presence inside their room was strictly verboten, as was her waking them up at night, for any reason at all, from having killed a rat to dealing with a fever.
This time she gathered her courage and knocked, very softly.
“Father,” she whispered, her voice breaking. Rita cleared her throat, then called him again, louder this time.
“Father!” she repeated urgently. His snoring stopped, then resumed a second later.
“Father, wake up!” she called again, rapping the door sharply.
This time he heard her.
“What!” he answered loudly from behind the door. “What is it?”
“There are men outside!” Rita whispered loudly. “Armed men.”
“Wait there,” he answered tersely after the briefest pause.
Rita heard him shuffling inside, opening and closing a drawer, mumbling something to her mother.
He opened the door abruptly, his heavy black hair—which he always kept impeccably swept back in place with a touch of gel—standing out in all directions. She would have giggled—if he hadn’t been carrying the heavy shotgun she had seen only twice in her life.
“What happened?” he asked gruffly.
“I… I got up to shut the windows because it was raining, and I saw them down in the street. There were five of them,” said Rita.
“Did they see you?” asked her father immediately.
Rita cringed. “Yes,” she said softly, averting her gaze.
Her father looked at her, at the white cotton nightgown, at her long, loose hair and her bare feet.
“You stupid, stupid girl,” he said, shaking his head, raising his left hand, then thinking twice about it. “Get in there with your mother, and don’t come out until I say so,” he added, pushing her inside his room and shutting the door behind him. Rita stood there numbly, her ear against the door, straining to hear him as he walked down the hall to her brother Sebastián’s room, also admonishing him to stay inside.
She felt her mother’s presence behind her, close but not touching her, a woolen blanket wrapped around her like a shawl.
“Rita, what did you do?” she asked anxiously, her face creased in worry, as it often was.
“We can’t leave Sebastián alone,” said Rita, not bothering to answer. Her brother was only ten. “He’ll be scared!”
“No he won’t,” said her mother quietly, resigned. “He’s a man. He’ll know how to take care of himself. What did you do, Rita?” she asked again, and this time her tone left no room for evasion.
“Nothing, Mother!” Rita replied in a ragged whisper. “I looked out the window. That’s all I did.”
Her mother looked at her blankly. “Well, you shouldn’t have,” she said at last, shaking her head.
Rita opened her mouth, wanting to defend herself, then thought better of it and instead crouched next to the door, clutching her arms around her waist in a vain attempt to keep warm as she tried to discern movement in the floor below.
After a few minutes of silence, her mother handed her a blanket.
“Come on, cover yourself. The last thing I need is for you to get sick,” she said gruffly.
“Thank you, Mother,” said Rita, bringing her knees close to her chest so her bare feet were covered by the warm wool. She leaned her head against the door and remained perfectly still for what seemed an eternity, wondering what little Sebas must be thinking across the hall, hearing the quiet rumble of her father’s voice on the phone downstairs and then nothing at all, until her initial fear gave way to exhaustion and she slumped asleep on the floor behind the door.
Her mother sat stiffly on the edge of her bed, one hand holding her blanket around her, the other hiding the handgun inside the folds of her nightgown. Only her eyes moved as she looked from the door to Rita and back to the door again.
The man on the street lingered outside her window, hoping against all logic that the girl would open her shutters again. Long minutes passed as he stood, immobile, then motioned his squad to get a move on.
They called him El Gato, The Cat, but his name was Lucas and he wasn’t a man. He was just a boy, but he had the chiseled features and exposed cheekbones of someone who had long shed the vulnerabilities of youth. None of them really knew how old he was; he’d told them he was twenty-four, but he was barely eighteen, a birthday he had taken note of, but not celebrated, just a week before.
They walked more quietly now, familiarizing themselves with the silent streets, enjoying the feel of firm ground underneath their feet after months of mud and marsh. He didn’t mind the rain. It had been far wetter up in the mountains, and colder, too. There the early-morning mist penetrated your slicker and your sweater and felt as if it were forever impaled inside the marrow of your bones. At night it didn’t matter how close you sat by the fire; the cold seeped in, insidious, its icy fingers creeping under your skin.
Part of their crew had already taken a hot shower—the first in nearly a year—and were already settled in at the lonely police station, the first place they’d gone to enlist cooperation. Others were at the church. It was always harder to make the priests see things their way, but after all, what was the use of resisting? Once the connection was established, they’d be under protection and unbothered, save for the monthly collection.
Lucas liked to walk the town as soon as he could. Get a feel for the land, at night, when the lights were still low, before the sunshine stung his eyes after months spent in the jungle’s shadow. He believed fiercely in auras and insisted that the wrong energy could make the best-planned mission fail. This town was steeped in resignation. He’d come here two weeks before, alone, and quietly paced the cobbled streets, letting his hands run over the wooden doors and the low stone walls, covered with moss. He’d walked the perimeter of the town square, his lithe figure barely visible underneath the starry mantle of the sky, but he soon realized there was nothing to worry about. This was a place that collapsed into itself after a certain hour. There were two bars here, and a handful of cafeterias and restaurants, more extensions of homes than business establishments. There must be holidays celebrated here, birthdays, graduations. But that night, from his vantage point at the top of the steps leading to the locked church doors, he couldn’t see a single light glimmering behind the shuttered windows.
He pictured her again in his mind: the long dark hair accentuating the white nightgown, the slender arms as she reached for the shutters. Her face was a pale oval, with huge, liquid brown eyes, almost a blur, but he would remember.
He made a mental note of the house, the window, the number. He was in no rush. No rush at all.
Rita and her brother didn’t go to school that day. Or the next. Or the next. In fact, they weren’t allowed out of the house at all, not even to go downstairs and help out at the store.
The two of them spent hours sitting on the floor next to the door that connected their apartment with the stairs that led to the store, straining to hear the muted voices of the men who walked in and out. Rita had neatly piled her notebooks and textbooks by her side and passed the time writing chapter summaries in her tidy little print. She figured that with midterm exams only two weeks off, she might as well get a head start in her studying, and she enjoyed it anyway. She reveled in the orderliness of the printed word, the nuggets of information encased in color-trimmed boxes, the pictures of presidents and leaders and places like China and India and Pakistan, countries whose names she would repeat under her breath as she looked at the photographs in her history book. She copied the highlighted information into her notebooks, writing page after page, the lined paper filling up with the words and exclamation marks and stars and suns and smiley faces—or frowns—that she added on the margins.
She had always been a good student: attentive, organized, quiet. The kind of student who teachers forgot existed until they graded her papers and her tests, shining receptacles of excellence. It usually took a while for teachers to adjust to her, to reconcile the invisibility of her classroom presence with the forcefulness of her assignments. In the beginning of the term, they would call out names as they distributed graded tests in class and invariably pause when they reached hers, taking in the perfect score, then, looking around the classroom with a touch of bewilderment, trying to match the grade to the girl.
“Rita?” they would say, and her name was always accompanied by a question mark, a tinge of incredulity, until, weeks later, they’d finally get that the languid girl with the Madonna features and downcast eyes was the same person who aced chemistry exams and essay assignments.
Rita didn’t care. She’d long ago perfected the art of invisibility, of drawing the least possible attention to herself through her actions. She was a girl of few words, even with her friends, who gravitated to her in spite of, or perhaps because of, her stillness, her ability to listen and finally say just the right thing.
Today she wrote in silence as the afternoon wore on, and Sebastián fidgeted, despite the marbles and the top and the messy stack of magazines with easy crossword puzzles that his father had brought upstairs the night before.
“Rita, I’m bored,” he whined, throwing the pencil against the wall in an ineffectual act of small rebellion.
“Go watch some television,” she replied, not bothering to look up.
“There’s nothing on,” he said, his voice rising and falling with ten-year-old indignation.
Rita sighed. He was right. They received only three channels here, and the early-afternoon programming had the bureaucratic dullness of a brick wall.
“And today,” he continued, “my friends all went to play soccer. They went with Carlos’s dad. Nothing’s going to happen, Rita. I’m the only one who’s stuck here!”
“And what do you want me to do about it?” she asked calmly. “You know I can’t change Father’s mind about anything.”
“You could come with me and keep me company, and then maybe they’d let me go. But you like being inside and just reading!” he accused. “This is fun for you! You’re weird,” he added huffily, laying his head on his folded arms and turning his face against the wall.
Rita tilted her head and looked at his skinny back, the small shoulder blades sticking out like stunted angel wings. She loved him. Loved his wet-puppy smell when he came home after playing in the fields with the boys, loved his cold little hand snuggling into hers when she walked him to school in the mornings, loved that he could still speak his mind and make their father smile, as Rita had once done, long ago. He was the opposite of her: spoiled, loudmouthed, a terrible student, and a brat, really, quick with his affections and mercurial in his moods. It made others go to great lengths to please him, and even at ten years old Sebastián took note, manipulating situations with the natural cunning of smooth talkers who always manage to get their way.
He was their miracle baby. After they’d had Rita, her parents had tried unsuccessfully for years to have a boy, but her mother’s body violently rejected the notion of a second child, miscarrying three times, the last after a painful thirty-week pregnancy that yielded a fully formed baby, strangled by his own umbilical cord.
Rita didn’t remember much of that time, save for vague recollections of tiptoeing around the house and occasionally being allowed inside her mother’s darkened bedroom, the wooden shutters closed against the afternoon sun. Her mother would lie there for hours, grasping a crucifix as she stared at nothing, her eyes briefly lighting up when she saw six-year-old Rita, her hand wanly reaching up to touch her daughter’s long hair.
“Your mother isn’t feeling well,” her aunt—who came and spent a month with them—would say, gently pulling her away from her mother’s touch, leading her downstairs to the store, where Rita sat painting on the floor underneath her father’s desk, listening to old boleros on the radio.
What Rita remembers most is that her father loved her then. He would let her pick special candy and Chocolatina Jet from the counter, and he would carefully post her drawings alongside the boxes of cigarettes so no clients could miss seeing them when they paid.
In the evenings he would put her to bed and say her prayers with her—Ángel de mi guarda, dulce compañía, no me desampares ni de noche ni de día—his deep voice lulling her to sleep like a gentle bass drum. Her mother lay semicatatonic in the bedroom across the hall, but her father’s love—enormous, omnipresent—did not allow for spaces to grow in the landscape of her affections.
Rita was cherished then. She was still cherished when Sebastián was born, less than a year later. She wondered about that ever since she read the sex-education booklet. How her mother couldn’t climb out of the bed to take care of her own daughter but still managed to have sex with her father and within two months of miscarrying one child—miraculously, it seemed—conceived another.
It must have been their last act of true passion, Rita thought, because how else to explain their unfettered love for Sebastián, even as their affections for her seemed to diminish the older she grew, until she lost the awkwardness of childhood and began to walk with a sway in her hips. That’s when her father had stopped looking at her.
But she had loved Sebastián, too. Fiercely and immediately, with the certainty of someone who knows that others can change. She would look after him, she thought when she first saw him, sleeping at her mother’s breast, and her then-chubby hands reached impulsively to touch his tiny head, covered with hair the color of soot, only to be slapped away by her mother’s hand—the first of so many rebukes—with an admonishment of “Don’t touch him, you’ll make him sick.”
Rita didn’t care. Grown-ups slept. They got careless. For them, children were like gnats, pests that were swatted away and eventually ignored and forgotten. In the lazy afternoons, when her parents minded the store and the baby slept upstairs, she would creep into his room and watch over him. Hers was the first face he saw every time he woke up.
The first word he spoke was “tata,” aimed at her as she walked toward him with his bottle.
“He’s so smart, Sergio,” her mother marveled to her father. “See? He’s asking for his bottle!” But Rita, at seven years old, knew better. He was saying “tata” because he couldn’t pronounce the Ri in “Rita.” He was talking to her. “Tata,” he repeated, and clapped his little hands spastically. He smiled at her, and Rita’s heart opened up with an overpowering sense of joy, unlike anything she’d ever felt, far more thrilling than any of the carnival rides that occasionally made it to their town.
She now looked at Sebastián, at his skinny arms folded in indignation, at the black hair that had only seemed to get darker with the years, at the sliver of vulnerable pink skin that lay exposed between his socks and his scrunched-up corduroys.
“I’ll fix it,” she said quietly, with a certainty she didn’t feel, but still she got up and called downstairs from the hallway phone.
“What’s the matter, Rita?” her mother asked without preamble, not bothering to say hello.
Rita took a deep breath, then simply put it out there. “Mother, Sebastián wants to know if he can go to the soccer game,” she said, cutting straight to the point. “I’ll go with him. I’ll make sure nothing happens. I promise.”
Her mother was silent on the other end of the line. Rita knew she was torn between being overly cautious and giving in—not to her, but to Sebastián. After all, how many days could they keep them inside as the world resumed its pace around them?
“Wait,” her mother said tersely, and even though she covered the mouthpiece with her hand, Rita could hear her whispering to her father, could hear their intense arguing, she cajoling, he adamant—because he feared what the guerrillas could do to his children.
“Rita?” It was her mother again, startling Rita, who had begun a quiet game of catch with Sebastián, rolling a little yellow rubber ball down the long hallway so their parents wouldn’t hear them below.
“Come downstairs. Alone. Your father wants to talk to you,” her mother said brusquely, and hung up.
Rita placed her receiver carefully back on the hook. She knew that the guerrillas collected money—a tax, they called it, for protection. She knew they tried to recruit children, to make up for ranks thinned by heightened army activity.
She’d heard that some of them had already left, but a handful had remained behind indefinitely and set up their post at the police station, under the guise of keeping the peace in an area of relative calm but occasional disputes, stolen cattle, a gunfight or two over land boundaries.
Nothing too dire, but she knew they targeted people like her family, people who’d tried to remain neutral during the conflict. She knew they targeted towns like hers, compact but isolated, like random wrinkles on starched linen shirts.
Sometimes when she rode in the back of the pickup truck that went twice a week to the next town over—the town with the closest bus stop—she’d look out at the winding hills and wonder just how the path of the main road had been decided. There was no rhyme or reason she could discern. Her town was just as beautiful, the fields around it just as fertile, the layout of the land designed for growth yet stunted by lack of easy access. She wondered if the man who’d plotted the route—because she’d never considered that it could be a woman—had succumbed to political favors or if he’d just simply, capriciously, let his pencil slide in one direction of the drawing board and not the other.
Rita didn’t muse now. She looked at Sebastián, crossed her fingers, and shrugged with a smile before bracing herself and heading downstairs.
Her parents were behind the counter, her father smoking and drinking sweet black coffee from the thermos Rita’s mother prepared for him each morning and each afternoon. He looked at her as she walked in, and in his eyes she caught a glimmer of surprise, as if he didn’t quite know what he expected to see. It wasn’t the first time she’d recognized that expression when he watched her, and Rita wished she could see herself as he saw her, because perhaps then she could figure out what so irritated him about her. Instead she hunched her shoulders slightly, trying to look less imposing, less whatever it was he thought of her.
“These thugs could be here for a long time, so we’re going to have to learn to live with them,” her father said with no preamble. He wasn’t given to preambles or explanations. Just orders.
“They’ve assured us they won’t hurt anyone, they promise they won’t touch the children, but they’re criminals and I don’t trust them,” he continued, looking straight at her for emphasis. “You are responsible for your brother, so pay attention now. You can go to school on Monday. You can take him to play soccer now. But you don’t let him out of your sight for a second, you hear me?”
Rita nodded dumbly.
“You don’t talk to anyone you shouldn’t talk to. You don’t stop and chat with your little friends, you don’t go around flirting with boys. I don’t want any of that to come back to me.”
“No, sir,” Rita said.
“You’ll take your brother to that soccer game today, you’ll wait for him, and you’ll come back.”
“Yes, sir,” she said quickly.
“On Monday, when you go to school, the rules are the same. Sebastián is not to be alone. Ever. If he’s not with your mother or with me, he’s with you. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir,” Rita said again.
“I expect you to act like an adult, Rita,” he added. “Nothing stupid this time.”
“Yes, sir,” she repeated, frowning slightly. She had acted stupidly a single time, and the protest rose up in her chest, but she quelled it; she was a master of suppression. She didn’t want to wreck Sebastián’s outing, after all, and, like him, she now yearned to set foot outside, get out of the stale air inside this house.
Her father peered at her intently, then motioned with his head for her to go.
“Excuse me, sir,” said Rita, her voice barely a whisper. “Ma’am,” she added, glancing at her mother, who had already turned away, busying herself behind the cash register.
“Tell Sebastián to stop for his blessing before you go out,” she told Rita, not bothering to look up as she spoke.
“Yes, ma’am,” Rita said, and hurried back to the stairwell, carefully closing the door behind her before dashing up the stairs.
He was waiting for her expectantly at the landing, and his eyes lit up when he saw the smile on her face. Rita so rarely smiled openly inside this house; the news had to be good.
“You’re a miracle worker, Tata!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms around her waist.
“No miracles, silly!” she answered, pulling him close to her, inhaling the sweet, crisp smell of soap from his little-boy hair. “You just have to ask. Now, come on, hurry, put on your shoes, let’s go,” she said, pushing him gently toward his room.
Rita changed into jeans and a red T-shirt and brushed her long black hair until it gleamed, then pushed it back with a red hair band that matched her shirt. The only mirror inside her room was a small, poorly lit rectangle on the inside of her closet door, rusting on the edges despite her best efforts to make it gleam. She peered into it now, fingering the lustrous ends of her dark hair, her biggest source of vanity: heavy, luxurious hair, like her father’s, which she got trimmed only twice a year and which she deep-conditioned with a mixture of mayonnaise and avocado she wore to sleep once a month.
Rita smiled at her reflection. She didn’t care that her teeth were slightly crooked, didn’t care what her parents thought; she liked what she saw today.
“Tata!” Sebastián called.
“Coming,” she said, hurriedly tying a sweater around her waist as she walked out of her bedroom, leaving her door wide open, a requisite in this house save for when someone was asleep or changing. They walked downstairs together, and Rita ushered her brother toward her mother for his blessing, her face impassive as her mother cupped his face between her hands and kissed his forehead with gentle care. Her father reached his arm over the counter and brusquely pulled Sebastián toward him, patting his cheek softly with his hand.
“Stay close to your sister, son,” he admonished.
“Yes, Father,” answered Sebastián, smiling broadly. “Your blessing, sir,” he added, lowering his head for the sign of the cross.
“Rita, your blessing, girl!” her mother called irately.
Rita came up to her, surprised. It wasn’t often that she received her blessing anymore, and she both relished and shunned the feel of her mother’s hands on her face, her touch so unexpected that it felt insincere. Up close, Rita looked frankly at the face whose soft, round contours and fine features mirrored hers, but whose still-unlined skin had gone coarse and thick, like a leather sole. Her mother’s eyes were her own, liquid drops of dark caramel that had once been soulful but now were simply resigned to the routine of her existence.
“What are you staring at, girl?” her mother asked suddenly.
“Nothing, Mother,” Rita answered guiltily, and then, on an impulse, she added, “It’s just that you look beautiful, Mother.”
Her mother, caught off guard, arched her eyebrows at the unanticipated compliment.
“You do, Mother!” Sebastián piped up.
“Okay, run along now,” said their mother, embarrassed, looking sideways at her husband. They were not given to flattery in this household. “You have to be back before it gets dark,” she reiterated. “Be very careful.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Rita, ushering Sebastián out the open door. She looked back and saw her father’s gaze on her, his measuring, speculative gaze. Rita automatically brought her shoulders forward, lowered her head, fixed her eyes on the very next stone her feet were to step on as she took her brother’s hand and walked away with him, attention on the road, following the tread of foot on stone, foot on stone, until she turned the corner into the town square and was no longer visible from her father’s vantage point by his storefront window. Only then did she pull back her shoulders, toss back her hair, and untie the sweater she had loosely tied around her waist.
By the time Lucas’s eyes found them, he saw the skinny little runt of a boy, his right hand swinging from that of his much taller companion—a girl whose black hair floated behind her like a shiny banner, undulating down her back in a languorous rhythm that connected the certitude of each of her steps with the sway of her full hips encased inside tight jeans. Even before Lucas caught up to them, before he grabbed her arm and turned her around, he knew her face, knew the slight curve of her narrow nose, the haughty tilt of her head, the liquid caramel of eyes that seemed to melt when they calmly met his, almost as if she were expecting him.
Rita stood perfectly still and tightened her hold on Sebastián’s hand, automatically pulling him behind her. After five days confined with her brother, she was acutely aware of this man’s smell, of the mixture of sweat and cigarettes and strength and anxiety that emanated from his body, from the hand that gripped her arm, from his hair.
“You shouldn’t be walking alone around here,” he said simply.
“We know our way,” Rita replied steadily, even as she looked around for someone else, her pulse quickening with the realization that they were alone, midway between the town and the fields.
“I think I’d better escort you,” the man said, ignoring her words, his hand running firmly down the length of her arm, to her hand and through her fingers before letting her go. Rita didn’t move, paralyzed by a mixture of fear and headiness. She resisted the urge to touch the skin his hand had just grazed and reached inside herself to find the voice she had momentarily lost.
“Please. We’ll get into trouble if they see us with you,” she said softly.
His face fell, and in that brief, unguarded moment, she saw him for what he was, for what his companions of over a year in the jungle had missed. He was just a boy. A boy with a crush who was now being turned down. Rita was only sixteen, and her experience with men was limited to a single innocent, catastrophic relationship. But she knew, with the certainty known by thousands of women before her, that right now, for this small moment at least, she had the upper hand.
“Maybe you could follow us, at a prudent distance.” The words came out of her mouth unbidden, unnecessary, because he could do anything he wanted and because it was extraordinarily foolish of her to prolong the contact. But she wanted to see how far she could go, wanted to see his reaction, and she did see it, in the eyes that lit up, in the confidence that returned to his stance.
“I’ll be your bodyguard, then,” he said seriously. “And who am I guarding?”
Rita looked at him levelly, at his fatigues, at his boots, at his weapon, slung over his shoulder, at those strange brown eyes flecked with yellow, and at the full lips, so at odds with his sharp, angular face.
“I’m Rita,” she finally said, and wondered if he could hear the resignation in her voice. He looked pointedly at Sebastián, who had quietly moved up to stand alongside her, but she just shook her head.
“What kind of gun is that?” her brother asked, oblivious, cutting to what had been the object of his fascination from the moment this man had grabbed his sister’s arm.
“It’s an AKS-74U, a Krinkov. It’s Russian,” said Lucas proudly.
“We’re not touching guns, Sebas,” Rita said coldly, pulling him away before his hand could reach out and feel the shiny muzzle.
Lucas slowly pulled the gun back, his face blank.
“Guns are only for protection… Sebastián,” he said, smiling very slightly, taking note of her brother’s name. “But you’re protected with me, so you don’t need one here,” he added.
“What’s your name?” Sebastián asked.
“Lucas,” he replied, his real name slipping out as he looked from the boy to the girl. “I’m Lucas,” he repeated, this time fixing his eyes only on her. “But you can call me Gato.”
“Come now, we’re already late,” Rita said simply, and set forth again without looking back at him, afraid to even guess the distance between them, her brother’s hand held tightly in hers.
For years afterward she would remember this moment, remember the smell of burned wood and coal that drifted toward them from the town, remember the sharp clarity of the afternoon air underneath the piercing mountain sun and the faint shouts of the children as they got closer to the playing field. She would remember his silhouette, just his silhouette—because the sun blazing behind him blinded her to his features the one time she dared looked behind her.
She didn’t know then that words, more than actions, determine the course of destiny, didn’t know that there would come a time when she would give anything to take back those impulsive words—Maybe you could follow us, at a prudent distance—so uncharacteristically forward for her, spurred by the vanity of being made to feel beautiful again with a simple touch and a simple glance.
Lucas kept his distance. He set up post on a small hill overlooking the makeshift soccer field, listlessly watching the game out of the corner of his eye but focused really on her. She was sitting down below him with a group of friends on the grass. Another girl leaned into her, and a few minutes later he saw her look up toward him before bringing her hand quickly over her mouth to stifle a laugh—or an exclamation—before turning back toward Rita.
Lucas’s hand tightened around his rifle. He’d always been self-confident, a natural leader, even while growing up in the most squalid conditions in the outskirts of the city. Being armed gave him even more assuredness. Rarely did anything that anyone said or did perturb or deter him.
He looked at the group of girls below, at one in particular who was clearly the alpha female, a busty blonde with milky skin. In his present position, he could have any girl he wanted, anywhere he went; it was one of the perks of the job.
But he wanted this one—this Rita. He had never seen a girl quite so beautiful, quite so clean, quite so precise and perfectly arranged, her T-shirt tucked neatly inside her jeans, her fingernails clipped short and painted the lightest pink, with not a touch of grime underneath them.
Lucas sat down, propped his gun between his knees, and lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply and savoring the taste of the smoke and the feel of the sun’s warmth on his face. He waited.
“Don’t look!” Rita chided Jazmin, pulling hard on her hand.
“He’s cute!” said Jazmin, stifling a giggle.
“How can you tell from here? He’s too far away,” Rita said reasonably.
“Because I’ve seen him, silly,” said Jazmin. “He hangs out around your dad’s store all the time.”
Rita blushed, delighted. He hung out around her house? Surely it was because of her. Or was it? He had given her no inkling that he’d recognized her from the other night, although she had recognized him, immediately, and her almost visceral reaction to him surprised her. She’d never been particularly interested in the boys around here, except for Alberto, and look where that had led her.
She glanced surreptitiously up toward Lucas, saw him take a deep drag from a cigarette, and blushed when Jazmin elbowed her in her side.
“Just don’t let your dad catch you,” she whispered to Rita. “He’ll kill you!”
“No kidding,” said Rita softly. “He already gave me a lecture this morning.” She smiled, trying to make a joke of it, but Jazmin just squeezed her hand comfortingly. They were complete opposites—bright, open, quirky Jazmin and the quiet, beautiful, serene Rita—but had been friends forever. Some of Jazmin’s most cherished childhood moments were of times spent helping Rita restock the shelves in her parents’ store. When they were finished, Rita’s father would reward them with candy, sometimes a piece of gum, even though everyone knew that chewing gum would give you cavities, which meant going to the dentist two towns and three and a half hours away and having him use that awful drill. But Rita could do no wrong then.
It was later, when she grew into her face, into her hips, into that glorious mane of hair, and the men started noticing, that her father, too, noticed that he no longer had a little girl of his own.
Only Jazmin knew what had really happened with Alberto. She had forced it out of her after Rita was abruptly grounded, indefinitely, all of her social interactions outside school severed without possibility of appeal.
Because Alberto, he never said a word, and in that, Rita found a measure of solace. Whether out of decency or sheer fear, he never blabbed, as far as Rita could tell, never bragged of how she’d melted into him inside the storage closet of her parents’ own store, how she’d allowed him to kiss her and run his hands up and down her body and finally lift her T-shirt over her head and unclasp her bra. Perhaps he never said a word because Rita Ortiz was Rita Ortiz, as aloof and untouchable as a princess. But for the first time in her life, Rita fancied herself in love, and her boundaries simply shattered. Her relationship with Alberto had progressed slowly but relentlessly, from coy glances during church to furtive hand-holding to quick kisses stolen in the nooks and crannies of their school.
Lots of people kissed—at fourteen Rita had known this, but she had no idea if they felt the way she did for hours afterward, restless and flustered and ready to scream for more. But anything more, she knew, would make her a slut. Only sluts, her mother reminded her, let men fondle them and treat them with what she deemed “lack of respect.” Rita wasn’t quite sure what constituted “lack of respect.” Was it allowing his tongue inside her mouth? His hand to linger on top of her sweater, over her breasts? On Sundays, during church, Rita would pray for forgiveness for whatever it was she could have done wrong and for the strength to resist whatever it was she might do wrong. But she brought none of those doubts to confession, incapable of baring this part of herself to Father Pablo, who’d baptized her, who gave her candy after Mass on Sunday mornings, who was, after all, a man, and how then could he possibly understand what a woman felt? Maybe, she thought, she was indeed a slut, and the thought filled her with a mix of regret and shame.
But alone with Alberto, all her misgivings fell by the wayside, not entirely forgotten but brushed aside, like a pile of dirty laundry that’s swept under the bed to be dealt with at some point later, just not now.
That Saturday afternoon Alberto went to see her in the store, where she was manning the register while her mother and Sebastián went to her cousin’s house and her father napped upstairs. It was not uncommon for him to be there, but never outside the vigilant supervision of one of her parents, who knew, as only parents know, that girls of a certain age simply cannot be left alone with boys, not unless one can accept the inevitability of an embrace, a touch, the contact of lips against lips and anything else that time allows.
But Rita’s parents also thought, as all parents think, that their child, this unusual blend of reserve and shyness and haughtiness, was too special a child, too innocent, and yes, too superior, to allow herself to be sullied by a boy, and certainly not by this boy, the son of a notorious sleaze who was always trying to gain an unfair edge in business dealings. This boy was four years older than she was and already a well-known womanizer, known for promising, promising, but then simply moving along to the next one. Even at fourteen Rita was too smart for him, they thought, and certainly too smart not to know better. Most important, her father, especially her father, believed her to be above reproach, believed that if common sense ever abandoned her, fear of reprisal from him, sheer respect for her father, would keep her in line.
That Saturday, Sergio Ortiz woke up abruptly from his nap, although he couldn’t say why. Hot and bothered, he called out to Rita from the landing on the second floor and, hearing no answer, walked quietly down the stairs. He eyed his empty store with mounting dread and silently, suspicion rising in the pit of his stomach, made his way to the storage closet in the back. He heard them before he saw them, Rita’s voice saying the right words—“No… I don’t know…. Not now”—but her breathless tone was all wrong. It was a certain yes, to Alberto’s entreaties, to his “Come on, Rita, it’s nothing, just relax.”
Sergio thrust the door open without preamble, anticipating what he was going to find but nevertheless shocked to see her—his Rita, his Rita—with her top off, her bra off, her pubescent breasts exposed to Alberto Castillo’s probing, obscene hands, the tableau made all the more sordid against the backdrop of stacked boxes, liters of soda, and cigarette cartons.
Sergio lost it. That evening when he recounted the events to his wife, he couldn’t tell her exactly what had happened, couldn’t recall exactly what he’d done.
Rita could, though. She’d let Alberto convince her to go back, just for a minute, but once in the isolation of that closet, with his mouth on hers, with his hands on her hair, she forgot all about minutes, forgot all about rules and admonishments, forgot that if he ever opened her blouse, she would automatically become a slut. All she could hear were his words, all she could smell was his Saturday-best cologne, all she could feel were his hands, hot and clammy on her breasts. All she could see was his white shirt, freshly washed and ironed for her, when her father burst through the door and in a single movement hauled Alberto from on top of her, shoved him against the opposite wall, and punched him, hard, on the face.
Alberto Castillo fell to the floor and felt his nose burst in a kaleidoscope of pain and color, the blood gushing onto his white shirt, lights exploding before his eyes.
“You fucking bastard!” bellowed Sergio at the top of his lungs. “In my home? In my store? With my daughter?” He punctuated every last word with a hard kick that pushed Alberto Castillo across the floor to the door of the closet. He caught his breath for a second as Alberto tried to struggle back to his feet, then kicked him again, out the door, as if he were a bag of trash, kicked him down the rows of products, kicked him all the way to the front of the store, until Alberto was finally able to scramble to his knees and get a grip on the door handle. But before Alberto could pull himself up, Sergio grabbed him by the collar, pushed him violently against the counter, and rammed his knee hard into Alberto’s crotch.
Alberto grunted in pain and felt himself go slack in Sergio’s grasp.
“You ever get close to her again,” Sergio said softly, twisting Alberto’s shirt so the boy’s ear was millimeters away from his own mouth, “and I will kill you. I’ll kill you,” he repeated.
He opened the door and tossed Alberto out like a rotting fruit, not bothering to wait for him to get up and run, oblivious to the looks of his neighbors playing Parcheesi across the street.
In the closet Rita struggled to put on her bra, her fingers fumbling as she missed the clasp again and again, until she simply gave up and stuffed her bra into her jeans pocket and put her shirt back on. She looked at the smudges of blood on the doorjamb and recoiled. She knew that her father was capable of violence, but not like this, not against her, not because of her, and she stood uncertainly inside the closet, petrified, wishing she could disappear, be anywhere but here, thinking she would give anything, anything, to take back the last half hour. Outside the now-open closet door, she could hear her father’s heavy breathing, his slow footsteps as he walked closer and closer toward her, until he stood framed by the door, his trim figure suddenly gigantic against the backdrop of the afternoon sun that came in through the front window.
Sergio looked at his daughter. His only daughter. His pride and joy. He grimaced as he saw in his mind her naked breasts in that bastard’s hands, and he felt the anger rise again within him, strong enough that he had to stop himself from lunging at her and beating the beauty out of her face. Instead he took a step back and looked away from her, at the place above the cash register where her paintings hung.
“You,” he said firmly. “You are not to see him ever again. Ever. You are not to see any man alone ever again until I say so. I am not going to raise a whore.”
Sergio took a big breath and felt a small thread of regret permeate the rage that consumed him.
“Now, go to your room and wait for your mother,” he added, and turned his back on her and walked toward the cash register, never looking back as Rita scurried up the stairs.
The next day Jazmin waited for Rita in vain at the monthly communal party, piecing together the fragments of what had happened from tidbits of gossip passed around in between dances. “They wouldn’t let me go,” Rita told her Monday at school, her face swollen from a full night of tears.
“Don’t worry,” Jazmin had said, hugging her close. “They’ll let you go to the one next month. You’ll see.”
But they didn’t. Not the next month nor the next nor the next.
It had been eighteen months now, and for Rita time had stood still.
“Don’t worry,” Jazmin said now, laying her head on her friend’s shoulder. “Once we finish school, we can leave and you won’t have to deal with them anymore. You’ll see. We’ll make our own rules.”
That night dinner was more animated than usual, as Sebastián regaled his parents with tales of a victorious match and a scored goal.
When their father asked if they had encountered any trouble, he simply shook his head solemnly.
“You cannot ever, ever tell Mother and Father that we talked with that man,” Rita had admonished intently before they’d turned in to their street. It was almost dark, and they were hurrying to get back in time, but before he could round the corner, she grabbed his arm and crouched down beside him, serious.
Sebastián nodded uncertainly. “But why not?” he said. “Nothing happened.”
“Because I’m asking you not to, Sebas,” Rita said, trying to quell her panic. “And because if you do, they won’t let us out, ever again, while those men are here,” she added, and she knew that at least was true. “You don’t want that to happen, do you? They’ll lock us both up.”
Sebastián shook his head more fiercely now, his small-boy’s brow furrowing with rare concern.
“So promise me,” Rita insisted.
“I promise,” said Sebastián earnestly.
Rita looked at him unconvinced. She needed way more insurance than that.
“Swear to God,” she said, putting her hands on his shoulders.
Sebastián brought up his fist to his mouth and kissed his thumb.
“I swear to God, I won’t tell them we spoke with anyone.”
At the dinner table, Rita sat quietly, nibbling on her chicken stew as her brother lied for both of them.
She liked that name.
Sundays, after early-morning church, was her time. Her parents had to mind the store together—it was their busiest day of the week with the traffic to and from the market—and Sebastián was shuttled off to her aunt’s small farm to play with the cousins.
And Rita walked alone. She would change out of her Sunday-Mass dress into jeans and tennis shoes and pick up the huge woven market basket and set forth, an overgrown Little Red Riding Hood dispatched to buy the family’s weekly supply of food, her long hair braided back from her face, the wad of carefully counted money nestled inside her bra so it wouldn’t get lost or stolen. On Sundays everybody from the surrounding farms and tiny townships came here, to their square, where they set up shop by 6:00 A.M. so that they were up and running by the time the first Mass let out. The day was a procession of people, spilling out from the church onto the square and from the square up the steps to Mass, announced by the toll of the bells sharply at 6:00, 8:30, 11:00, and at 1:00 P.M.
Rita was in the square by 7:30, when the crowd was still light, not just to pick the best produce of the day but to prolong her time outside, making her way as slowly as possible from stand to stand, sorting through the fresh white cheese wrapped in plantain leaves, the piles of freshly pulled herbs with their roots still attached and clinging to moist soil, and the mounds of fruits and red and yellow and white potatoes as the market filled up with people and animals—hens and goats and pigs tethered to trees or bleating in protest at their confinement in makeshift pens. The odor of frying food mingled with that of fresh-cut flowers and hot chocolate and tangy oranges and fresh mint in a cacophony of smells that impregnated Rita’s hair and clothes, as the smoke from the burning woodstoves stung her eyes. Rita, the most fastidious of girls, reveled in this messy, dirty, sometimes stinking disarray. She couldn’t say why, except that her memories of this market were uniformly warm and welcoming, like a security blanket, and as time had passed, her parents had allowed her to keep this one indulgence, in no small part because she was a smart shopper and a ruthless bargainer who could stretch the weekly budget to surprising lengths.
Excerpted from The Second Time We Met by Cobo, Leila Copyright © 2012 by Cobo, Leila. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 9, 2012
When you are adopted I am sure the question of "who am I really" is always in the back of your mind. Asher Stone gave this some thought over the 21 years of his life, but not seriously, until the day he almost died. Everything came too close to being taken away and even though his adopted parents are a source of unconditional love, Asher has to know "who am I really.”
After he made the decision to find out why his mother and father decided another life was better than what they could offer the hunt becomes an obsession. The adventure that Asher goes on to Bogotá, Columbia with his girlfriend is one fraught with as many barriers as answers to his search. His birth mother was the master of guarding secrets and has literally disappeared into thin air. No one seems to know where she is or what happened which is a problem that slows down the hunt but does not stop it. There are people that remember bits and pieces that can be built into a whole story revealing a life that was led and the possible location of where she has gone.
One must always be careful of what you will find at the end of a quest. Will the answers be full of promise or is there despair behind that closed door. Asher cannot help but wonder if the answer he seeks is not one that should be sought, perhaps when someone is hiding there is a reason for it and you should let it go.
The book that Leila Cobo has written is absolute brilliance. She takes the reader through every step of the emotional journey that Asher goes through and makes you feel as if you are there holding his hand through it all. Ms. Cobo elaborates with clarity what could have been as much as much as what is making sure readers never lose the important point of view, elaborating the story from all sides, and reminding us how much we take for granted. We are all curious about our DNA regardless of who raised us because there is something that makes us unique as much as it makes us a part of something
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Posted February 23, 2012
I bought this book on the recommendation of my online book club. I was riveted.
Cobo is an extraordinary writer, one who paints scenes and characters in such vivid detail, you actually feel the location, the people, the air. She truly brought Colombia to life.
I loved the story of Rita and how she reclaims her shattered dreams and changes her life and herself. But I also loved Asher, and how he's torn between the mother he knows and loves and the one he wants to meet. I wanted to put my arms around Linda, who supports her son's search but can't help but feel resentment against the unknown mother. And I so wanted to save Lucas from the life he was forced to live.
Cobo's characters aren't black or white. They're torn and flawed and sometimes contradictory, but that's what makes them so compelling and believable.
I am currently re-reading the book, and discovering new nuances along the way, and crying all over again.
I can't recommend it highly enough.
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Posted April 10, 2012
As an adoptive mother, I found this book to be very accurate and sensitive to the feelings of both the birth mother and the adoptive parents. Rita, the birth mother, is an amazing character, who through her eyes the reader is exposed to a bewildering history of Columbia. The parallel of Rita and her country blossoming into success is well done. The portrayal of the adoptive parents of supporting, yet in the background, is our role when our children begin their searches. Asher is obviously the result of a loving, supportive home, as he pursues his search with confidence. He does not let anyone stand in his way. An excellent book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 27, 2012
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