At Night We Walk in Circles

At Night We Walk in Circles

by Daniel Alarcón


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The breakout book from a prizewinning young writer: a breathtaking, suspenseful story of one man’s obsessive search to find the truth of another man’s downfall.

Nelson’s life is not turning out the way he hoped. His girlfriend is sleeping with another man, his brother has left their South American country, leaving Nelson to care for their widowed mother, and his acting career can’t seem to get off the ground. That is, until he lands a starring role in a touring revival of The Idiot President, a legendary play by Nelson’s hero, Henry Nunez, leader of the storied guerrilla theater troupe Diciembre. And that’s when the real trouble begins.

The tour takes Nelson out of the shelter of the city and across a landscape he’s never seen, which still bears the scars of the civil war. With each performance, Nelson grows closer to his fellow actors, becoming hopelessly entangled in their complicated lives, until, during one memorable performance, a long-buried betrayal surfaces to force the troupe into chaos.

Nelson’s fate is slowly revealed through the investigation of the narrator, a young man obsessed with Nelson’s story—and perhaps closer to it than he lets on. In sharp, vivid, and beautiful prose, Alarcón delivers a compulsively readable narrative and a provocative meditation on fate, identity, and the large consequences that can result from even our smallest choices.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594631719
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/31/2013
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.06(w) x 8.46(h) x 1.27(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Daniel Alarcón is author of the critically-acclaimed story collection War by Candlelight, and the novel Lost City Radio, winner of the 2009 International Literature Prize. His writing has appeared in Granta, n+1, and Harper’s, and he has been named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.” Alarcón is Executive Producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language storytelling podcast, and he lives in San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt

DURING THE WAR—which Nelson’s father called the anxious years—a few radical students at the Conservatory founded a theater company. They read the French surrealists, and improvised adaptations of Quechua myths; they smoked cheap tobacco, and sang protest songs with vulgar lyrics. They laughed in public as if it were a political act, baring their teeth and frightening children. Their ranks were drawn, broadly speaking, from the following overlapping circles of youth: the longhairs, the working class, the sex-crazed, the poseurs, the provincials, the alcoholics, the emotionally needy, the rabble-rousers, the opportunists, the punks, the hangers-on, and the obsessed. Nelson was just a boy then: moody, thoughtful, growing up in a suburb of the capital with his head bent over a book. He was secretly in love with a slight, brown-haired girl from school, with whom he’d exchanged actual words on only a handful of occasions. At night, Nelson imagined the dialogues they would have one day, he and this waifish, perfectly ordinary girl whom he loved. Sometimes he would act these out for his brother, Francisco. Neither had ever been to the theater.

The company, named Diciembre, coalesced around the work of a few strident, though novice, playwrights, and quickly became known for their daring trips into the conflict zone, where they lived out their slogan—Theater for the People!—at no small risk to the physical safety of the actors. Such was the tenor of the era that while sacrifices of this sort were applauded by certain sectors of the public, many others condemned them, even equated them with terrorism. In 1983, when Nelson was only five, a few of Diciembre’s members were harassed by police in the town of Belén; a relatively minor affair, which nonetheless made the papers, prelude to a more serious case in Las Velas, where members of the local defense committee briefly held three actors captive, even roughed them up a bit, believing them to be Cuban agents. The trio had adapted a short story by Alejo Carpentier, quite convincingly by all accounts.

Nor were they entirely safe in the city: in early April 1986, after two performances of a piece titled The Idiot President, Diciembre’s lead actor and playwright was arrested for incitement, and left to languish for the better part of a year at a prison known as Collectors. His name was Henry Nuñez, and his freedom was, for a brief time, a cause célèbre. Letters were written on his behalf in a handful of foreign countries, by mostly well-meaning people who’d never heard of him before and who had no opinion about his work. Somewhere in the archives of one or another of the national radio stations lurks the audio of a jailhouse interview: this serious young man, liberally seasoning his statements with citations of Camus and Ionesco, describing a prison production of The Idiot President, with inmates in the starring roles. “Criminals and delinquents have an intuitive understanding of a play about national politics,” Henry said in a firm, uncowed voice. Nelson, a month shy of his eighth birthday, chanced to hear this interview. His father, Sebastián, stood at the kitchen counter preparing coffee, with a look of concern.

“Dad,” young Nelson asked, “what’s a playwright?”

Sebastián thought for a moment. He’d wanted to be a writer when he was his son’s age. “A storyteller. A playwright is someone who makes up stories.”

The boy was intrigued but not satisfied with this definition.

That evening, he brought it up with his brother, Francisco, who responded the way he always did to almost anything Nelson said aloud: with a look of puzzlement and annoyance. As if there were a set of normal things that all younger brothers knew instinctively to do in the presence of their elders but which Nelson had never learned. Francisco fiddled with the radio. Sighed.

“Playwrights make up conversation. They call them scripts. That crap you make up about your little fake girlfriend, for example.”

Francisco was twelve, an age at which all is forgiven. Eventually he would leave for the United States, but long before his departure, he was already living as if he were gone. As if this family of his—mother, father, brother—mattered hardly at all. He knew exactly how to end conversations.

No recordings of the aforementioned prison performance of The Idiot President have been found.

By the time of his release, in November of that same year, Henry was much thinner and older. He no longer spoke with that firm voice; in fact, he hardly spoke at all. He gave no interviews. In January, in response to an uprising by inmates, two of the more volatile sections of Collectors were razed, bombed, and burned by the army; and the men who’d made up the cast of The Idiot President died in the assault. They were shot in the head or killed by shrapnel; some had the misfortune to be crushed beneath falling concrete walls. In all, three hundred forty-three inmates died, vanished; and though Henry wasn’t there, part of him died that day too. The incident garnered international attention, a few letters of protest from European capitals, and then it was forgotten. Henry lost Rogelio, his best friend and cell mate, his lover, though he wouldn’t have used that word at the time, not even to himself. He did not take the stage again for nearly fifteen years.

But a troupe must be bigger than a single personality. Diciembre responded to the curfew, the bombings, and the widespread fear with a program of drama-based bacchanals, “so drunk on youth and art” (according to Henry, a notion echoed by others), “they might as well have been living in another universe.” Gunshots were deliberately misheard, interpreted as celebratory fireworks, and used as a pretext to praise the local joie de vivre; blackouts put them in the mood for romance. In its glory days at the end of the 1980s, Diciembre felt less like a theater collective and more like a movement: they staged marathon, all-night shows in the newly abandoned buildings and warehouses at the edges of the Old City. When there was no electricity—which was often—they rigged up lights from car batteries, or set candles about the stage; barring that, they performed in the dark, the spectral voices of the actors emerging from the limitless black. They became known for their pop reworkings of García Lorca, their stentorian readings of Brazilian soap opera scripts, their poetry nights that mocked the very idea of poetry. They celebrated on principle anything that kept audiences awake and laughing through what might have otherwise been the long, lonely hours of curfew. These shows were mythologized by theater students of Nelson’s generation; and, if one searched (as Nelson had) through the stands of used books and magazines clogging the side streets of the Old City, it was possible to find mimeographed copies of Diciembre’s programs, wrinkled and faded but bearing that unmistakable whiff of history, the kind one wishes to have been a part of.

By the time Nelson entered the Conservatory in 1995, the war had been over for a few years, but it was still a fresh memory. Much of the capital was being rebuilt. Perhaps it is more correct to say that the capital was being reimagined—as a version of itself where all that unpleasant recent history had never occurred. There were no statues to the dead, no streets renamed in their honor, no museum of historical memory. Rubble was cleared away, avenues widened, trees planted, new neighborhoods erected atop the ashes of those leveled in the conflict. Shopping malls were planned for every district of the capital, and the Old City—never an area with exact boundaries, but a commonly employed shorthand referring to the neglected and ruined center of town—was restored, block by block, with an optimistic eye toward a UNESCO World Heritage designation. Traffic was rerouted to make it more walkable, dreary facades given a dash of color, and the local pickpockets sent to work the outskirts by a suddenly vigilant police force. Tourists began to return, and the government, at least, was happy.

Meanwhile, Diciembre’s legend had only grown. Many of Nelson’s classmates at the Conservatory claimed to have been present at one or another of those historic performances as children. They said their parents had taken them; that they had witnessed unspeakable acts of depravity, an unholy union between recital and insurrection, sex and barbarism; that they remained, however many years later, unsettled, scarred, and even inspired by the memory. They were all liars. They were, in fact, studying to be liars. One imagines that students at the Conservatory these days speak of other things. That they are too young to remember how ordinary fear was during the anxious years. Perhaps they find it difficult to imagine a time when theater was improvised in response to terrifying headlines, when a line of dialogue delivered with a chilling sense of dread did not even require acting. But then, such are the narcotic effects of peace, and certainly no one wants to go backward.

Nearly a decade after the war’s nominal end, Diciembre still functioned as a loose grouping of actors who occasionally even put on a show, often in a private home, to which the audience came by invitation only. Paradoxically, now that travel outside the city was relatively safe, they hardly ever went to the interior. Was this laziness, a reasonable response to the end of hostilities, or simply middle age blunting the sharp edge of youthful radicalism? Henry Nuñez, once the star playwright of the troupe, all but withdrew from it, attributing the decision not to his time in prison but to the birth of his daughter. After his prison home was razed, almost in spite of himself, he fell in love, married, and had a daughter named Ana. And then: life, domesticity, responsibilities. Before Diciembre consumed him, he’d studied biology, enough to qualify for a teaching position at a supposedly progressive elementary school in the Cantonment. The work appealed to his ego—he could talk for hours about almost anything that came to mind and his students would not complain—and in his hands biology was less a science than an obsessive branch of the humanities. The world could, in fact, be explained, and he found it miraculous that the students listened. For extra money he drove a taxi every other weekend, crossing the city end to end in a serviceable old Chevrolet he’d inherited from his father. Though he hadn’t been inside a church since the mid-1980s, he put a bright red “Jesus Loves You” sticker in the front window to make potential passengers feel at ease. It was therapeutic, the mindlessness of driving, and the blank, sometimes dreary streets were so familiar they could not surprise him. On good days he could avoid thinking about his life.

Henry kept a giant plush teddy bear in the trunk, bringing it out for his daughter to sit with whenever he picked her up from her mother’s house. The bigger she grew, Henry told me, the more his ambition dulled. Not that he blamed her—quite the contrary. Ana, he explained, had saved him from a mediocre sort of life his old friends had suffered to attain: painters, actors, photographers, poets—collectively, they are known as artists, just as those men and women who train in spaceflight are known as astronauts, whether or not they have been to space. He preferred not to play the part, he said. He was done pretending, a conclusion he’d come to in the aftermath of his imprisonment, after his friends had been killed.

But in late 2000, some veterans of Diciembre decided it was important to commemorate the founding of the troupe. A series of shows was planned in the city, and a Diciembre veteran named Patalarga even suggested a tour. Naturally, they called on Henry, who, with some reluctance, agreed to participate, but only if a new actor could be found to join. Auditions for a touring version of The Idiot President were announced for February 2001, and Nelson, a year out of the Conservatory at the time, signed up eagerly. He and dozens of young actors just like him, more notable for their enthusiasm than for their talent, gathered in a damp school gymnasium in the district of Legon, reading lines that no one had said aloud in more than a decade. It was like stepping back in time, Henry thought, and this had been precisely his concern when the proposal was first floated. He sighed, perhaps too loudly; he felt old. Since his divorce, he saw eleven-year-old Ana on alternate weekends. His students were his daughter’s age; they completed science “experiments” where nothing at all was in play, where no possible outcome could surprise. Lately this depressed him profoundly, and he didn’t know why. Whenever Ana came to stay, she brought with her a bundle of drawings tied with a string, all the work she’d done since they’d last seen each other, which she turned over to her father with great ceremony, for critique. Unlike his old friends, unlike himself, his daughter was not pretending: she wasan artist, in that honest way only children can be, and this fact filled Henry with immense pride. They would sit on his couch and discuss in detail her works of crayon and pencil and pastel. Color, composition, stroke, theme. Henry would put on his most elegant, most highfalutin accent, and describe her work with big words she didn’t understand but found delightful, funny, and very grown-up—poststructuralist, antediluvian, protosurrealist, aphasic. She’d smile; he’d rejoice. The anthropomorphic strain running through your oeuvre is simply remarkable! More often than not, hidden within his daughter’s artwork, Henry found a terse note from Ana’s mother, which was, in content and tone, the exact opposite of Ana’s lighthearted drawings: a list of things to do, reminders about Ana’s school fees, activities, appointments. Words free of warmth or affect or any trace of the life they had once attempted to make together. The playfulness would cease for a moment as Henry read.

“What does it say, Daddy?” Ana would ask.

“Your mother. She says she misses me.”

Henry and his daughter would dissolve into fits of deep-throated laughter. For a girl her age, Ana understood divorce quite well.

The revival of Henry’s most famous play was timed to coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of its truncated debut and the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the company. When he told Ana’s mother the idea, she congratulated him. “Maybe you can get locked up again,” his ex-wife said. “Perhaps it will resurrect your career.”

A similar notion had crossed his mind too, of course, but for the sake of his pride, Henry pretended to take offense.

Now, at the auditions, his career felt farther away than ever. Whatever this was—whether a vice, an obsession, a malady—it most certainly was not “a career.” Still, this dialogue, these lines he’d written so many years before, even when recited by these inexpert actors, provoked in Henry an unexpected rush of sentiment: memories of hope, anger, and righteousness. The high drama of those days, the sense of vertigo; he pressed his eyes closed. In prison, Rogelio had taught him how to place a metal coil in the carved-out grooves of a brick, and how to use this contraption to warm up his meals. Before that simple lesson everything Henry ate had been cold. The prison was a frightful place, the most terrifying he’d ever been. He’d tried his hardest to forget it, but if there was anything about those times that had the ability to make him shudder still, it was the cold: his stay in prison, the fear, his despair, reduced to a temperature. Cold food. Cold hands. Cold cement floors. He remembered now how these coils had glowed bright and red, how Rogelio’s smile did too, and was surprised that these images still moved him so.

For their part, the actors were mostly too nervous or excited to notice Henry’s troubled, uneasy countenance; or if they did, they assumed it was in response to their own performances.

Some, it should be noted, had no idea who he was.

But Nelson did recognize Henry. He’d heard him on the radio that day, and not long after, decided to become a playwright. All these years later, and in many ways, it remained his dream. What did he say to Henry?

Something like: “Mr. Nuñez, it’s an honor.”

Or: “I never thought I’d have the chance to meet you, sir.”

The words themselves aren’t that important; that he insisted on approaching the table where Henry sat, absorbed in dark memories, was enough. Picture it: Nelson reaching for his hero’s hand, his eyes brimming with admiration. A connection between the two men, the mentor and his protégé.

When we spoke, Henry dismissed the idea.

I insisted: Did the playwright see something of himself in the young man? Something of his own past?

“No,” Henry responded. “If you’ll pardon my saying so, I was never, ever that young. Not even when I was a boy.”

No matter. On a Monday in March 2001, Nelson was summoned to rehearsals at a theater in the Old City, a block off the traffic circle near the National Library, where his father had once worked. After a dismal year—a breakup, a protracted tenure at an uninteresting job, the disappointing aftermath of a graduation both longed for and feared—Nelson was simply delighted by the news. Henry was right: Nelson, almost twenty-three, had a backpack full of scripts, a notebook jammed with handwritten stories, a head of unruly curls, and seemed much, much younger. Perhaps this is why he got the part—his youth. His ignorance. His malleability. His ambition. The tour would begin in a month. And that is when the trouble began.

NORMALLY, Nelson would have shared news of this sort with Ixta. Now he doubted himself. She’d been his girlfriend until the previous July, and they’d parted ways, not amicably, on a day that Nelson considered to be the dead heart of winter. Ghoulish clouds, a fine, gray mist. It was entirely his doing—he wanted freedom, he said. She scoffed, “What am I, your jailer?” and in response, selfish but authentic tears bubbled in his eyes. He was going to the United States and couldn’t be beholden to her or anyone in pursuit of his future. They didn’t speak for three months, during which time he made no plans and took no steps toward this supposedly brave and life-changing move.

In early October, Nelson and Ixta met for a coffee, a tense affair which led, nonetheless, to another meeting, a few weeks later. Quite unexpectedly, midway through this second encounter, he found himself laughing. And Ixta laughing too. It wasn’t tentative, or self-conscious, or polite. And this shook him, the realization that, had he more nerve, he could reach across the narrow table that separated them, and—in front of all these strangers—casually lay his hand upon hers. No one would notice or think it odd. They might even smile at the sight, or say to themselves something like:

Oh, what a handsome young couple!

He didn’t, of course—not that day—but he did make some progress. Slowly. Patiently. At the steady rate of an ant gathering food, or a bird building a nest. And it paid off: by the start of the Christmas season, they were sleeping together again. It happened almost by accident at first, but the second time filled him with hope. They began meeting every two weeks or so, more if Mindo, Ixta’s new boyfriend, was working nights. These encounters were the source of both happiness and torment for Nelson, but he was, in any case, unable or unwilling to push things any further. In their nakedness, they talked about everything except what they were doing together, the future, and somehow the vagueness of their new relationship was why it felt so very adult. Ixta never asked if he still intended to leave for the United States, nor did he mention it. He would—someday soon, he felt certain—tell her he loved her, that he missed her, that he was sorry for everything, and that they should be together, if not forever, then at least for now. Afterward, things would be clearer. He hadn’t written the scene out—he didn’t do that sort of thing anymore—but he had projected himself into it, rehearsed a speech or two in his head. As it turns out, Ixta was expecting this as well. She didn’t know how she’d respond, but she was waiting. There was only the small issue of his not having said anything.

In March, when he heard the news about Diciembre, Nelson considered all they’d been through, what surely lay ahead, and decided it was correct to call her first. Her place in line was a nod to their past, to their imagined future. The phone rang twice, a curt hello. Ixta let him talk, and congratulated him, drily. He listened: it was the voice she used when Mindo was in the room.

Nelson and Ixta were both actors, though, so this fact hardly precluded conversation; in fact, it was more important than ever to behave naturally. Just two friends talking. The subterfuge was part of the attraction, one imagines. Ixta played her part: the news was grand, she told him. “How long will you be gone?”

“A couple of months, maybe three.”

There was a certain sadism to his announcement. “I felt abandoned,” Ixta said to me later. “Again.”

She kept this confession to herself, and instead offered: “You always did want to travel.”

“It could even go for longer, if we’re well received.”

“One hopes.”

Nelson waited for her to go on, but she didn’t. She’d gifted him these two words, but they were impossible to interpret. One hopes for what?

In the background: “Who’s that, baby?”

Nelson flinched, but refused to back down. Later, he’d wonder if he’d been reckless. But really: what if they were caught? Shouldn’t hewant that to happen?

“Shall we celebrate?” he asked.

In his mind, the fact that they were lovers—and only lovers, for now—was a relief to Ixta. He imagined her grateful that he placed no pressure on their future, did not demand a label for this new iteration of their relationship. He imagined her impressed by his maturity, by his willingness to share her with another man. But this formulation was partial. It did not take into account the fact that she’d loved him, or that he’d broken her heart. It did not consider that her heart might be broken still, or that every time they slept together, it broke a little more.

“I don’t know,” Ixta said. “I’m busy this week.”

“I thought you’d be happy for me,” Nelson said, and immediately regretted it. He sounded so plaintive, so self-involved. There were certain traits he’d been careful not to manifest since their reconciliation, but here they were, slipping out into the open, naked. He wanted to be a better person; and if that were not possible, at least to seem like one.

“I am happy for you,” she said. “Thrilled.”

He doubled down: “I’d like to see you.”

Ixta sighed: talking to herself now, in a rapid clip that tumbled the conversation to a close. “Sure. Yeah. Okay. Great. Talk soon.” He could almost hear the man lying next to her, eyes half-closed, wrapping Ixta’s brown hair casually around his finger.

Nelson held the phone a little while longer, for no good reason.

• • •

THE SECOND PERSON to hear the good news was his mother, Mónica, who’d been widowed three years prior, and whose capacity for joy had been greatly diminished ever since. That phrase is hers: “capacity for joy,” she said to me, as one might describe the potential speed of a four-cylinder engine, or the memory inside a new computer. When this was brought to her attention, Mónica laughed. “Too many years as a bureaucrat,” she said. “Imagine the life I could have had!”

But the truth is she’d liked her life just fine until her husband died. The house she and her younger son shared was strange to them now; and both spent as little time there as possible. The first year, Nelson often heard his mother crying very late at night. Francisco would sometimes call from California, and stay on the phone with her for long spells. The melancholy chatter emerging from the other room lulled him to sleep. He slept quite a bit in those days. Mónica was better now. She still kept her husband’s pajamas under his old pillow, and respected the notion that one side of the bed was his. It was only right she feel her husband’s absence like a wound.

Mónica went to the movies a great deal, American mostly. She’d developed a taste for action films and thrillers. The more explosions and special effects, the better; if the movie involved aliens or submarines, she privately rejoiced. She even tried to explain this new interest to her sons, separately, with varying results. Predictably, Nelson (for whom the storytelling aesthetic was not a matter of taste but a deeply held conviction) was less than supportive. Francisco, on the other hand, regarded it as comical, and somehow in keeping with his mother’s other eccentricities; she made origami swans from tea bag wrappers, flocks of them appearing in the house’s odd corners: in a little-used kitchen cupboard, behind the fine china; in the dining room, seated at the head of the table; or perched on windowsills, facing the street. She never threw away a magazine without cutting a pretty picture or two out of it first, their refrigerator door becoming the de facto gallery space for these images, a collage of faces which had made Nelson and Francisco feel, as children, that they were part of an eclectic and impossibly large family. And since Sebastián had passed, Mónica had picked up one of his old habits: writing letters to the newspapers, for example, complaining about potholes, traffic jams, rising crime, the lack of green space. These she wrote in Sebastián’s name, under his signature, faithful to her husband’s acid and erudite style. Whenever one was published, Mónica felt a pang, a sense of accomplishment, a confirmation of her solitude. She’d save the clippings in a folder, and sometimes read them before bed, as Sebastián had often done when he was alive.

About the movies, Mónica felt neither of her sons understood. It wasn’t the stories she liked but the atmosphere that came with them. She’d find herself in line in front of the theater, surrounded by mad swarms of teenage boys, behaving as teenage boys do: badly. They were manic, poorly dressed, unnecessarily loud. I accompanied her to one of these films, and saw firsthand her unmistakable joy. The worse the film was, the more mindless, the happier Mónica became: her new peers talked back to the screen and cheered every explosion, creating a cacophony nearly equal to that of the film itself. It was a surprise to her too, she told me, but in their company, she felt peace. Comfort. A reminder that she wasn’t dead yet.

The night Nelson received the news about Diciembre, it so happened that both mother and son were home at dinnertime and that neither had eaten. He’d intended to mention it in a slapdash, toss-away sort of comment that might require a quick hug and little else, but that’s not how things turned out.

“Do you remember the audition?” he asked, “from last week?” And without waiting for an answer, he blurted it out: He’d gotten the part. He’d be going on tour.

Mónica was a small, proud woman; both smaller and prouder, in fact, in the years since Sebastián had died. Now, though she tried to hide it, Mónica began to cry.

Nelson protested: “Mom.”

“I’m happy for you,” she said. “That’s wonderful!”

Her voice cracked. She asked for details, but had to sit to hear them. Her legs felt weak. He told her what he knew: They would leave the capital in April, head up into the mountains. As many shows as they could manage, perhaps six or seven a week. In most every town, they’d begin with a negotiation, for a space, for a time. They had contacts, and Diciembre was respected and fairly well known, even now. If the town was big enough, they’d stay awhile, until everyone had seen them perform. The circuit was sketched out, but subject to improvisation.

“Of course,” Mónica said.

He went on. Roughly: San Luis (where one of the traveling members of Diciembre had a cousin), a week and a half in the highlands above and around Corongo (where the same man was born, and where his mother still lived), Canteras (where Henry Nuñez himself had lived from age nine until he ran away to the capital at age fourteen), Concepción, then over the ridge to Belén, and into the valleys below. Posadas, El Arroyo, Surco Chico, up toward San Germán, and then the coast. A dozen smaller villages in between. An undeniably ambitious itinerary. The heart of the heart of the country. It was the tour Diciembre had intended to do, fifteen years earlier, until Henry’s arrest scuttled those plans.

By this point, Mónica was sobbing.

“What a beautiful trip,” she said, “just beautiful.” And though she meant these words, perhaps it’s worth noting that she’d never heard of most of the towns her son listed, and could hardly connect an image to their names. She confessed it to me: They weren’t, in her mind, specific places but ideas of places. Notions. Echoes. The fact that one could even go to the interior still amazed her: during the war much of the country had been off-limits, far too dangerous for travel—but now her son would board a night bus and think nothing of it. It was astonishing. In 1971, on their honeymoon, she and Sebastián drove her father’s car out of the city, into the fertile valleys that tilted toward the jungle, to picturesque riverside towns with cobblestone streets and thatched-roof adobe houses. Complex, unpronounceable names, which ten years later, during the war, would be synonymous with fear. But not then. If some of the names had been forgotten, everything else she recalled vividly: the bright, clean water; the thick, humid air; the magical feeling of levity; and this man—her husband—all to herself. Her body ached at the memory.

“What’s the matter?” Nelson asked, sitting beside his mother as she wept. “It’s only a couple of months.”

Mónica couldn’t explain, or preferred not to. Where to begin?

“I haven’t eaten, I’m just a little light-headed,” she said, and tried to remember the last time she’d cried. Like this? Weeks—no, months! Later she told me: “I was frightened. I’d be left alone, completely alone. I was certain I’d lose him. I don’t know how, but I just knew.”

• • •

THE ONE PERSON Nelson didn’t share his good news with was his brother, Francisco. They weren’t talking much in those days. Francisco’s occasional e-mails went unanswered (Nelson didn’t take this form of communication seriously and thought of it as a fad); and whenever he called from the United States, it seemed his younger brother had just stepped out. In all, they spoke perhaps three times a year, never for longer than ten minutes. The crushing, but entirely logical, result of so much distance was this: the less they spoke, the less they had to talk about.

Nelson’s childhood can be divided roughly into two parts: before Francisco left for the United States and after. Until age thirteen, Nelson lived with Francisco, sharing a room, all manner of confidences, and a certain conspiratorial tension. To be sure, there was a hierarchy: when Francisco bullied Nelson, Nelson admired his brother’s strength; when Francisco made fun of him, Nelson marveled at his brother’s wit; when Francisco tricked him, Nelson appreciated his brother’s cleverness. It would be unfair to say they didn’t get along—though they argued a good deal and even fought on occasion, that’s only part of the story. It’s more accurate to say Nelson looked up to his brother without reservation; that he—like younger brothers throughout the world, since hominids organized into families—was born into a cult. That Francisco was, until he left, and for a good while afterward, the model of everything Nelson wanted to be.

Mónica and Sebastián moved together to Baltimore in 1972, to study. They’d married the year before, and once in the United States decided it was time to start a family. Sebastián, when he was alive, explained the decision this way: having an American baby was like putting money in the bank. Francisco was born in 1974. Mónica worked toward her public health degree at Johns Hopkins, Sebastián for his master’s in library science. While his parents studied, Francisco observed the interior of their small apartment in the company of a talkative American nanny. So talkative, in fact, that in the interview, Mónica and Sebastián had hardly been able to get a word in. They hoped some of this woman’s English would stay lodged in their son’s brain, where it might be useful later.

Francisco’s linguistic education was cut short, however, when the government back home was ousted three months before his second birthday. The news was spotty, but Sebastián and Mónica soon gathered a few salient facts. The most important: the new leaders were not on friendly terms with the Americans. The response came soon enough: the family’s visas would not be renewed. Appeals, they were told, could be filed only from the home country. The university hospital wrote a letter on Mónica’s behalf, but this well-meaning document vanished into some bureaucrat’s file cabinet in suburban Virginia, and it soon became clear that there was nothing to be done. Rather than risk the undignified prospect of a deportation (or more unthinkable, staying on, and living in the shadow of legality) Sebastián and Mónica chose to pack their things and go; just like that, their American adventure came to a premature end. Still, the accident of his place of birth gave Francisco an important practical and psychological advantage, something which shaped his personality in the years to come: a U.S. passport, and all that it represented.

Nelson was born in 1978, when Francisco was four. The armed conflict began two years later, in a faraway province to the south of the capital, a place so remote the war was almost three years old before anyone took it seriously. Five before many people knew enough to be afraid. By 1986 though, everything was clear enough, even to Sebastián and Mónica’s two young boys. Throughout their childhood, as the war tightened its grip on the city, as the economy began to wobble, Francisco taunted Nelson with his remarkable travel document. It was the equivalent of a magic carpet, the possibility of escape implicit among its powers, somehow always present in conversations between the brothers. It was expected that Francisco would emigrate as soon as was feasible, and bring his younger brother with him at the first opportunity. Francisco finished school, studied for the TOEFL, and as the date of his eventual departure drew near, lorded this good luck over his increasingly frightened younger brother. Nelson did Francisco’s laundry, made his bed, fetched things for him from the store—an endless number of petty errands, all under threat of a withheld visa. “What a shame,” Francisco might say, shaking his head sadly as he observed a messy stack of poorly folded clothes. “I’d hate to have to leave you here.”

(Remarkably, this scene, recounted to me by a shamefaced Francisco in January 2002, also appears in Nelson’s journals. In that version, Francisco’s quote is slightly, albeit crucially, different: “I’d hate to have to leave you here to die.”)

Whatever the exact words, regrettable episodes like these were forever imprinted on Nelson’s consciousness, the threat of being left behind reiterated so often and with so many harrowing overtones that it began to sound like a ghost story, or a horror film, in which he, Nelson, was the victim. At the time Francisco had no understanding of what he was putting his brother through. Whatever cruelties he committed in those years were a function of his impatience and immaturity. His ignorance. He was eager for his own life to begin far from the crumbling, violent city where he lived. Though he never admitted it, not to his younger brother or to anyone, Francisco was also afraid: that it was all a dream, that he too would be condemned to stay; that someone at the airport in Miami or New York or Los Angeles would take a look at him, at his passport, and laugh. “Where’d you get this?” they’d ask, chuckling, and he’d be too startled to answer. He knew nothing, after all, about being American. He was hungry for experience of the kind he could only have far from his family and their expectations. Land of the free, etc. In this regard, Francisco was an ordinary boy, with ordinary ambitions.

In spite of it all, the two brothers were close, until January 1992, when Francisco, age eighteen, boarded a plane and disappeared into the wilds of the southern United States to live with some friends of the family. In the months and years that followed, he wrote letters and called from time to time, but began nonetheless to drift from Nelson’s memory and consciousness. Nelson entered a kind of holding pattern: an American visa would soon arrive, or so he’d been told, to whisk him away toward a new beginning. His early adolescence coincided with the hard bleak years of the war, when life was strangled by violence, when families went about their routines in a state of constant apprehension. Things were at their worst that year Francisco left; and Nelson, like the rest of his traumatized generation, spent a lot of time indoors. (As did I, for example.) Instead of venturing out into the unsafe streets, Nelson read a great deal, and watched television with a kind of studiousness his mother found alarming, a rigor occasionally rewarded with a glimpse of topless dancing women, or a lewd joke worth repeating at school, or the sight of a normally stoic reporter buckling before the weight of some new and terrifying announcement.

The news in the late 1980s and early 1990s never failed to supply a somber, cautionary anecdote starring families just like one’s own, now mired in unspeakable tragedy. Men and women disappeared, police were shot, the apparatus of the state teetered. This last phrase was heard so often, whether in adult conversation or on the radio, that Nelson began to take it literally. He would imagine an elegant but precariously built tower, swaying in a rising wind. Would it fall? Of course it would. The only question serious people asked was who would be crushed beneath it.

For Nelson, for his family, for most of the city’s alarmed residents, the calculus was fairly simple: those who could leave, would. If Nelson, the boy, grew fond of escapism, he was merely a product of his time; if he found little use for homework, for education as it is traditionally and narrowly defined, it was because he reasoned it was of little use—he’d soon be starting over anyway; if he daydreamed of a life in the United States, he did so at first with a whimsical ignorance, his imagined USA requiring little detail or nuance to serve its comforting spiritual purpose. As for his current reality, Nelson chose to think of himself as passing through; and this allowed him to withstand a great deal, content in the notion that all his troubles were temporary. For a while, it wasn’t a bad way to live.

I’ll go on, though everyone knows I’m writing about a country so different now, so utterly transformed that even we who lived through this period have a hard time remembering what it was like. The worse the situation at home, the more comfort Nelson took in his eventual emigration; each May he expected to celebrate his birthday with his brother in the United States, but unfortunately, each year it was postponed. Francisco did not complete the required paperwork. He did not submit to the interview. He did not petition for his little brother to join him in the United States when he had that responsibility and that right; when he could have done so as soon as 1994. For this negligence, Francisco blames his youth, though he is self-aware enough to be a little embarrassed by his lack of consideration. In his defense: he was discovering his new country, attempting to become what his blue passport had always said he was—an American. He didn’t have the time or the inclination to consider what his equivocating might mean to Nelson, how it might affect his life and worldview. It’s really quite simple, when one considers it: Francisco didn’t want to be in charge of his young brother. He was only twenty years old, enjoying himself, working odd jobs, and moving often. He didn’t want the responsibility. Sebastián and Mónica nagged and pestered their older son, even shamed him, but it would be years before Nelson’s paperwork finally went through.

Meanwhile, Nelson’s obsession with the United States animated his teen years. With the help of his father’s library access, he learned a more than passable English (though his accent was described by a former teacher with whom I spoke as “simply horrific”), and even a basic familiarity with American history. He studied the geography, and followed his brother’s itinerant journey across the country, placing himself alongside Francisco in each and every one of these towns: unglamorous places like Birmingham, Alabama; St. Louis, Missouri; Denton, Texas; Carson City, Nevada. He’d read his brother’s letters, and begun to engage in a kind of magical thinking.

At first, filled with hope, he thought: That could be me.

Then, with a hint of bitterness: That should be me.

Sometimes, just before sleeping: That is me.

In interviews, an interesting portrait emerges: Nelson telling friends his residency papers would soon come, that he’d soon be off, even bragging about it, his imminent departure a matter of pride. One wonders how much of this he believed, and how much of it was posturing.

“He could be a little smug, honestly,” said Juan Carlos, a young man who claimed to have been Nelson’s best friend from 1993 until 1995. “At the end of every school year, he’d say good-bye, letting it slip that he probably wouldn’t be back the following term. He’d shrug about it, feigning indifference, as if it were all out of his hands. He was going to study theater in New York, that’s what he always said, but the next year, he’d be back, and if you ever asked him about it, he’d just ignore the question. He had this skill. He was very good at changing the subject. It was something we all admired.”

The much-promised and much-delayed travel document finally arrived at the American embassy in January 1998, three, or even four years late. The war was over, and the country was beginning to emerge from its depression. Nelson sprang into action. He was entering his third year at the Conservatory, and began to study his options with a seriousness his parents found impressive: as a playwright and actor, New York was naturally his preferred destination, but he would also consider Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. His brother was living across the Bay in a city called Oakland, tending bar and working alongside a kind older gentleman named Hassan who owned a clothing store. (All of which was a great disappointment to Mónica and Sebastián, though mostly to Sebastián, who’d wanted Francisco to have a different sort of career.) In those months, the two brothers spoke often and enthusiastically about Nelson’s plans, discussing the future with an excitement and optimism Nelson would later think of as naive. Francisco went along, even going so far as to visit a few local drama schools in the Bay Area, asking of the admissions officers the precise questions that Nelson had dictated to him over the phone: What percentage of students continue to further study? Who are your most successful alumni? Who is your typical alum? What percentage of the incoming class has read Eugene O’Neill? What percentage has read Beckett?

When Sebastián died suddenly in September 1998, these plans, those conversations, and that intimacy vanished.

No one had to tell Nelson that he could no longer leave. It was never discussed. He understood it very clearly the instant he saw his mother for the first time, in the hospital, immediately after Sebastián’s stroke. He found her facing the window at the end of the hall; she was backlit, but even in silhouette, Nelson could tell she was shattered. The hallways of the clinic smelled like formaldehyde, and as he walked, Nelson could feel his feet sticking to the floor. Mónica’s neck was tilted in defeat, her shoulders slumped. When he reached out to touch her, she startled.

“It’s me,” he said, somehow expecting, or perhaps only hoping, this might calm her down. It didn’t. Mónica collapsed into his chest.

Nelson thought: She’s mine now, she’s my responsibility.

And he was right.

Francisco returned in time for the funeral, dismayed to find his mother so broken and his brother so distant. He felt tremendously guilty (even tearing up when he recalled it to me), and Nelson, being Nelson, opted not to make things easier. Perhaps that’s uncharitable; perhaps Nelson simply couldn’t have made it easier for his remorseful brother. Perhaps he didn’t know how. They hadn’t seen each other in more than five years, and hardly knew how to be in the same room anymore. Nelson didn’t cry in his brother’s presence, something Francisco found disconcerting, since his every inclination in those first days home was to weep. He’d never wanted to come back like this; now he hated himself for having postponed a visit home for so long.

Mónica’s two sons spent most of their time sitting on either side of their mother, receiving guests. The condolences were torturous. Francisco and Nelson both cursed this tradition. When they found themselves alone, they spoke in hushed tones about their concern for their mother, but not about their own feelings. (“Numb,” Francisco told me. “That’s what I felt. Numb.”) There were some unpleasant postmortem details to handle—closing certain accounts, going through their father’s desk in the basement of the National Library, etc.—tasks which they performed together.

After much insistence from Francisco, they finally went out one night, just the two of them. Mónica’s sister Astrid had offered to keep their mother company. Francisco drove his father’s old car, which still smelled of Sebastián, a fact which was obvious to Nelson, but not to Francisco, who’d been gone too long to remember something as important as how their father had smelled. The evening was cold and damp, but Francisco had scarcely left his mother’s side in the week he’d been home, and the very idea of being out in the streets of the city filled him with wonder. He drove slowly; he wanted to see it all. It had been only six years, but nothing was as he remembered—it was like visiting the place for the very first time. He marveled at the brightly lit casinos lining Marina Avenue, neon castles built as if from the scavenged ruins of foreign amusement parks. There was a miniature Statue of Liberty, slightly more voluptuous than the original, smiling coquettishly and wearing sunglasses; there was a replica Eiffel Tower, its metal spire glowing amid klieg lights. A few blocks down, a semifunctional windmill presided over a bingo parlor called Don Quixote’s. On a windy day, Nelson explained, this attraction might even rotate, albeit very slowly. It was not uncommon to see young couples posing for pictures with the windmill, turning its blades by hand and laughing. Sometimes they wore wedding clothes. It was impossible to say when, how, or why this place had become a landmark, but it had.

Francisco noted each as they passed. “How long has this one been there?” he’d ask, and Nelson would shrug, because he had no answers and little interest. He found his brother’s curiosity unseemly. He’d long ago decided not to pay attention, because it was impossible to keep up with anyway. Maps of this city are outdated the moment they leave the printers. The avenue they drove along, for example: its commercial area had been cratered by a bomb in the late eighties—both Nelson and Francisco had clear memories of the incident—and the frightened residents had done what they could to move elsewhere, to safer, or seemingly safer, districts. Its sidewalks had once been choked with informal vendors, but these were run off by police in the early nineties, and had reconvened in a market built especially for them in an abandoned lot at the corner of University Avenue. Now the area was showing signs of life again: a new mall had been inaugurated, and some weekends it was glutted with shoppers who had money to spend, a development everyone, even the shoppers themselves, found surprising.

They found a restaurant along this renovated stretch of gaudy storefronts, a loud, brightly lit creole place, whose waiters hurried through the tables in period dress, evoking not so much a bygone historical era but the very contemporary tone of an amateurish theater production. Everyone is acting, Nelson thought, my brother and I too—and the idea saddened him. They ordered beers, and Francisco noted that they’d never had a drink together in their lives. They clinked bottles, forced smiles, but there was nothing to celebrate.

Francisco knew Nelson’s plans had changed, but he thought it was worth discussing. He was only desperate to recover something of that optimism, that closeness he’d felt with Nelson as recently as a month before. He found it hard to believe it could disappear so quickly, and so completely.

Nelson didn’t accept the premise. When Francisco asked, Nelson’s face screwed into a frown. “I don’t have plans anymore.”

“You don’t have plans? No, what you mean is—”

“You’ve seen her. You’ve seen how she is. I’m supposed to leave now?”

“I’m not saying now. Not immediate plans.”

Nelson rolled a bottle cap between his fingers, as if distracted. He wasn’t. “When will it be okay, do you think, to abandon my mother?”

Francisco sat back.

“I mean, let’s just estimate,” Nelson said. “Three months? Six months? A year?”

He fixed his gaze on his brother now.

“That’s not fair,” Francisco protested.

“Isn’t it?”

“Dad wouldn’t want you to . . .”

There was something steely and cold in Nelson’s eyes that kept Francisco from finishing that sentence. He never should’ve begun it, of course, but perhaps the damage was already done. Perhaps the damage had been done earlier, in 1992, when he left the country and his brother behind. Perhaps there was no way to repair it now. The two of them were silent for a while, which didn’t seem to bother Nelson at all. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself. He drank his beer unhurriedly, with an amused nonchalance, as if daring his older brother to speak.

A few days later, Francisco was on a flight back to California. Neither the future, in the general sense, or Nelson’s plans in particular, were mentioned again.

THE THEATER SAT AT THE EDGE of the Old City, in a rough, lawless neighborhood of decrepit houses, narrow streets, and metal gates held closed by rusting padlocks. It had once been known as the Olympic, the city’s premier stage for many years, though its glory days were long past. Nelson’s parents had taken in a show there once, when they were dating, an evening notable because it was the first time Sebastián ran his fingers along the inside of his future wife’s thigh. That night, Mónica sat almost perfectly still through the performance, widening her legs just enough to let him know she approved. 1965: the theater was in its prime; Sebastián and Mónica were too. Onstage, there was a comedy, but Nelson’s father paid no attention to the actors, imagining only the skin of his Mónica’s magnificent thighs, remembering to laugh only because those around him did.

The Olympic’s brightly lit marquee had once meant something; “A palace of dreams,” one of the founding members of Diciembre called it, remarking on the pride they felt the first time they performed there as a troupe, in 1984, two years before Henry’s arrest. But for Nelson and actors of his generation, it was simply a second-rate porn theater, frequented by old men, sad drunks, and prostitutes. Together, the worn-out members of these various tribes gathered to watch grainy films of blow jobs and acrobatic threesomes, projected out of focus on the yellow screen, sometimes without sound. Nelson didn’t know his parents’ story, but he had his own. Before this rehearsal, he’d been to the Olympic exactly twice: the first time, at age thirteen, with a few friends, when we’d pretended to be horrified and uninterested. A couple of months later, he returned, alone. That day he sat, as his father once had, thinking of flesh. Unlike his father, Nelson jerked off furiously and violently; one might even say ecstatically. (One assumes his father would have done the same, only after, in private.) To Nelson’s credit, he had enough presence of mind to avoid staining the pants of his school uniform, a fact noted with pride in his journal, entry dated September 2, 1991. He emerged from the darkened theater with a feeling of accomplishment.


Excerpted from "At Night We Walk in Circles"
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Copyright © 2014 Daniel Alarcón.
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