If We Only Die Once

Javi Osmar remembers the day he fell in love with girls who lie. It was before moving to the U.S., before learning English and before classrooms full of college students to teach, before a quiet house and sensible car. In those days when the dictator Rios-Montt ruled the country, and Javi was just a student. Now, thirty years later, the regime was gone and Rios-Montt was standing trial but back in ‘82, during the bloody days, it was no secret that in Central America power came in streams of bullets and fire.

Soldiers were burning native Indio villages (their inhabitants actually Ixil Mayas, Javi now knew, though back then all of them were just called Indios), and disappearing union leaders and political opponents and unsympathetic writers, and being an academic was not the safest thing either.

Javi was never in it for a cause; at least, not that cause. Javi was in it for the books. Javi was in it for ideas. Half of the time he didn’t even pay attention to where he was. At 23 already half-bald, with a squashed pug-like face and a vaguely pear-like shape beneath his drab and floppy sweaters, only Javi’s simply kind eyes in syrup brown, and the always-somewhat-disoriented nature of his smile made people smile back, when he bothered to look up from his folders and papers, full of notes even around the edges.

Still a virgin and by no means drawn to passionate political resistance, it was only because of his brother, fierce and idealistic Adrian, that Javi was at the cafe (and it was only for Corina that Adrian was really there, and she was there for Ismael, but that was neither here nor there, Javi thinks). The Sinsonte cafe was famous even then for the type of people that congregated there, as much as for serving beautifully strong and silky coffee – the smell Javi remembers – in a time and place where most people had to reuse the last day’s grounds and then drowned them in milk and cane sugar.

Javi claims, even to himself – who is a skeptical critic – that he remembers the notes he was taking that day at the table, while his brother and the others in the group spoke of guerillas and the proletariat.

Javi, deaf to the world outside the words on the notebooks before him, was preparing an essay about the ideas of love in the courtly centuries of kings and queens: how the things we want in a love now – an intellectual and emotional friend, a sexual mate, a social-contract partner – were never back then expected to be in just one person. Women, in courtly days, were not allowed to know of current events or history, or even learn to read, and so how could they ever be a friend?

Javi claims he remembers that was what he was writing about that day because of what would come next. He remembers writing about how in olden romance times women were the ones who could not be mental or even emotional equals, and were kept around to fulfill a certain cutely feminine role. He might only think he remembers because later – after the move to America, and the classrooms – he would ask if the opposite was now true.

If the mental and the emotional were now culturally the realm of women, and men were not expected to understand those things – really understand them – but were kept around to fulfill a brusquely masculine role, the condescending and patronizing “my woman” replaced with a smiling, head-shaking, “my man.” The question he now asked in classrooms being whether, in love, we ever got away from fragmenting roles at all.

He also claims to remember seeing her inside the cafe, even before he left: the raven-haired woman. She was at a table in the corner, and anyone would have noticed her, because she was so pretty although, far from handsome, he only noticed in a casually spectatorial way. She wore a black button-up blouse that strongly accented the ink-black darkness of her hair, an almost reflective darkness, even though most of it was under a simple beret type hat.

She was the same Ladino color and shape as everyone else but sitting across from her was a white blonde man who looked to be mid-30s in khakis, a tourist-y button shirt with what might have been a mysterious holster-like bulge around his left shoulder, and dark sunglasses – although maybe he wasn’t wearing that; maybe Javi remembers that almost cliched ensemble in retrospect, because of what he found out later. Who can know for sure?

Either way, he was so involved in his writing that he doesn’t really remember when Adrian and Corina and Ismael and the other guys all leave. He’s pretty sure Adrian tries a few times to tell him he should really leave with them, but Javi is so engrossed, and knows too well how even a walk-home interval can lose a day’s worth of ideas, that he waves them off and sits there, and writes, and writes, as the windows darken and the lamps overhead gradually become the only light.

He remembers the raven-haired woman looking at him a few times, her legs crossed at the ankles on top of the chair across from her, now empty because he and she and the staff were – he thought – the only ones left. Engrossed in his writing, not caring how he looked to others or what they were doing, he ignored her. Finally, the place was closing up, and Javi was just crossing out and re-writing previously-crossed-out words in his notebook anyway, so he awkwardly packed his notebooks up and made his way outside. He left before the raven-haired woman and scurried down the late-night city streets, his brain still on the particularly well-phrased sentences he had written.

It was not unusual that he didn’t notice when something important appeared.

“Stop,” the sudden, male voice told him. It was a slipshod voice, callous but self-amusing in its bemusement. “Why are you in such a hurry?”

Javi turned and, now reclining against the side of the building, clearly having followed him, was a humorlessly grinning man in full police uniform, his bushy eyebrows curving almost threateningly, a reckless scruff of facial hair across his careless face. A chill ran through Javi then: this was not a time when police were a welcome sight. One of the ironies of government was that even though the Indios were generally mistreated, many of them became police, a group of the brutal and corrupt. Looking back, Javi can only guess, it was one of the only ways for them to gain power, and control, even if it was by mistreating others themselves. This man was not an Indio. Something about his manner told Javi he had always been used to mistreating others.

“Where are you going?” the policeman asked him, beckoning slowly with his hand that Javi should come towards him. “Where are you going so hastily?”

One of the things Javi would come to learn, later, after studying both English and Spanish was that just one English word was rarely enough to translate a Spanish one. A la ligera, the expression the police officer used, could mean, where were you going so hastily. It could also mean, where were you going so carelessly.

Javi found his knees shake a little as he walked forward. The streets were empty, and this street had nothing on it but dark apartments and a few closed shops. Where the man beckoned Javi was an alley-like space between the back of two stores, where garbage was probably taken out. No one was around.

“I asked you,” the man repeated once Javi was close to him, “where you were going.”

“Just home,” said Javi, surprised at how weak his own voice sounded.

“No,” the man said impatiently, as if Javi should have known, “before, where did you go?  Where are you going home from?”

“Just a cafe,” said Javi.

The man smiles, horribly, as if he’s about to spring his trap, when another voice rings out. Javi remembers her voice like he is there.

“Listen!” a bright and pretty woman’s voice calls out. “There you are.”

Javi turns and it’s the raven-haired girl, running across the street towards them, now in a long brown trench-coat against the mild cool of night, her feet kind of turned in as she runs, the way some girls’ feet do, even though it doesn’t make for fast running.

“You,” the man says, straightening up and looking sterner. “What are you doing here?”

In Spanish, you is one of those things there are actually two words for one English one. There is the formal usted for a respectful or professional address, and the casual voz for someone you could be casual with. The man uses usted to her, which makes Javi feel better: he isn’t the only stranger caught out here today.

“This is my friend,” the woman says easily. “I was looking for him.”

“Stand over there,” the man says brusquely, pointing a few steps away.

“It’s okay,” the woman says (”Todo esta bien,” literally “everything is good,” Javi remembers), “I lost him at the cafe. We’re friends.”

“Stand over there,” the man repeats louder, harshly, and with a demure look, the girl obeys.

Satisfied, the man turns back to Javi. “He was just telling me about the cafe. I saw both of you there. The Sinsonte, where communist planners meet, organizers like Ismael Urbino, the student union leader.”

The man’s smile is almost feral now, as he points with one hand at Javi and with the other one, Javi notices with shaking fright, with the other one holds his pistol, still in its holster, as a precaution. “The Sinsonte where a CIA case officer might have visited earlier today.” (They pronounced CIA as “see-ah,” reading the word out loud). “The Captain will want to talk about your cafe.”

The officer’s face is so calm and commanding, up close to Javi’s, that it makes him shake harder, still trying to make sense of where his life is now going, when the woman speaks up.

“I’m going to reach into my pocket for a cigarette,” she says tentatively, as much to ask permission as to avoid him getting the wrong idea, with his hand on his pistol like it is.

The policeman says nothing, so she unbuttons the top button of her trench-coat, reaches in with one hand, pulls out a black pistol with a long suppressor and extends it, as simple as stretching out a hand, to the policeman’s head and pulls the trigger. There is the sharp report, quieted, like the last muffled screech of a traincar’s tires before it completely stops, and the policeman hits the ground, a ghastly sight: mangled red and pink along the hole above his face like a butcher’s cut. A small splash of his blood had appeared on Javi’s shirt.

The woman looks at Javi, puts the pistol back into her coat and says, “You should go.”

The big marble balls of her eyes had the brightest, most beautiful brown, in shades, in little triangles, all around. And in utter admiration, he would stare at them for decades.

On a later day, he would think about children. Much later. How it was the smart ones that were conniving, insinuative, secret. Manipulative. Because they were a class without power – cultural, economic, physical – the smart ones became a class with power by using what they had: by using their emotions, or their wits. And the interesting thing about the class of children was that we all have been one, so we all know what it was like: to have to lie and cheat to get what we deserve.

When women were treated like children, there would be two kinds of successful women, just like there were two kinds of successful children: those who acquiesce, and those who outsmart. To acquiesce was fine, if you were a child who had the advantages and the stomach for ordinary success. But the ones who break the rules, who don’t behave, because somewhere inside they simply have it in them not to lose, those were the ones he really loved, Javi learned. He felt this about himself, and he felt it fill him up, somehow.

It was the guerrilla warfare of sex and love, and life.The brusque, condemning men, who hated the misogynistic view of women as connivers, they hated the rebellions against oppressions they had created. They hated the things women did to stay alive, even though they had made the way that way.

Javi, how could he hate what had saved his life? And save his life she did. Thirty years later, along with Rios-Montt, the courts were sentencing police chiefs like Hector Bol de la Cruz for “disappearing” twenty-something student union leaders like Fernando Garcia, and trying the police officers who did the hands-on work. Javi would read about it in Reuters. But what good did it do the students now? She had done him good.

With one as beautiful as her, it was impossible not to think of what she’d probably done over the years to gain the trust of leaders and do her job. For that matter, who even knew what side she was on. The United States had done more bad than good for most people in the area before, on behalf of corporate interests like the United Fruit Company – but these were things Javi would learn much later.

Right then, he stared at her deep, dark hair, invisible in the dark of night where she stood, like a layer between her head and her beret hat.

“I’ll give you my coat, to cover up the blood-stain on your way home,” she said.

Javi looked down at his shirt. “Is it anywhere else?”

“No,” she said, removing her trench-coat, pulling out the pistol and slipping it into her jeans.

“You should give me your jeans, too,” he found himself saying. “Just in case.”

To his surprise, she grinned at him. “Que vivo,” she joked.

Vivo is one of those words, that takes more than one to translate from the Spanish, where everything is either female or is male. How cheeky, “vivo” might mean. It can also mean, how clever or how sharp or how quick to take advantage. “Que vivo” can also mean: how alive.

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