Go to this issue's Table of Contents.
A U G U S T 2 0 0 0
HIS happened in San Salvador, not long ago. My friend Cristina was coming back from lunch at a restaurant downtown with her mother, Elvira, and her mother's friend, Consuela. They were in Cristina's big car, and all three sat in the back. The driver was alone in the front seat.
Cristina was dropping her mother and Consuela off at her mother's house. Her mother lives on a narrow street lined with high stucco walls and solid gates. Everyone in that neighborhood has big heavy gates controlled by electricity. The car drives up to the gate, the chauffeur pushes a remote-control button, the gates open inward, the car drives inside, and the gates close after it. The walls in San Salvador have always been high. In the past broken bottles were cemented into the tops of them -- a row of glittering teeth to keep people from climbing over. Now electrified wires have replaced the broken bottles. El Salvador has always been like this, but since the revolution security has become more of a problem.
Cristina's car pulled into Elvira's clean, quiet street. All the houses there were tidy, all the high stucco walls freshly painted, all the gates tightly closed. They drove slowly down the block toward Elvira's house. A car, which no one noticed, was parked halfway down the block. At her mother's house Cristina told the driver to pull over to the sidewalk, to let her mother and Consuela out. They didn't go in through the big gates because Cristina was continuing on from there. The two women would get out at the little street door, right next to the sidewalk.
"Por aquí, por aquí, por aquí," Cristina said rapidly to the driver. Cristina says everything rapidly; she moves quickly and talks fast. She is quite beautiful, with thick black-brown hair and large, bright, dark eyes. She has an oval face and a short, straight nose. Her eyelids are slightly droopy, which gives her a drowsy, aristocratic look. She was my roommate in boarding school.
Cristina and I went to the same girls' school, outside Philadelphia, on the Main Line, but we came from very different worlds. I grew up in the country, in western Pennsylvania. My mother was the librarian at my elementary school, and my father was a doctor. We lived in an old stone farmhouse, rather dark inside, with small windows. I was an only child. Every night the three of us sat down to dinner at the round wooden table in the kitchen. We bowed our heads, and then my mother said grace over the food. After we raised our heads, I poured each of us a glass of water. The pitcher was made of dark-blue china. My father spoke very little at meals, and our house was quiet inside. Outside were smooth rolling fields. At night I could feel the three of us in our small lighted house, alone in all that empty land, set among the dark fields.
I was brought up to be good and obey the rules, and I was, and I did. I couldn't imagine violating those beliefs that grown-ups held: that rules were important, that lies were intolerable, that being good was the correct way to be. At school I was good. I wasn't good enough to be a star at anything (I was a mediocre student), but I wasn't bad. The worst thing I ever did was to sneak out on Halloween and go trick-or-treating through the darkened streets of Bryn Mawr, carrying a pillowcase and knocking timidly at front doors. I never lied to teachers or sneaked out to meet boys or cheated on tests or smuggled in alcohol or smoked marijuana or did anything wrong. Those things were beyond me somehow, out of my reach. The rules I'd been given held me within their bounds.
But Cristina came from a large family and a fiery-hot place that was unimaginable to me, and she broke any rule she felt like breaking. She kept vodka in our room at school, right on her bureau. It was in a Phisohex bottle, in full view of the housemother. Cristina looked straight into teachers' eyes and lied about where she was going for the weekend. She lied about how she was getting there and who she was seeing. She did all this with a bold and absolute certainty that I admired: she was utterly sure of the rules she wanted to break and of the things she needed to do. She didn't care about her grades or about honesty or about living up to people's expectations. All that was immaterial to her. The things she did need to do were things like going off to Princeton for the weekend. The things she didn't need to do were things like homework.
After we graduated, I went on to college and Cristina went back to El Salvador. In school she had laughed when I asked her about college.
"Are you kidding?" she said. "You have no idea what it's like down there. No one I know goes to college."
"But what do you do instead?" I asked.
"We do our hair, and then we do our nails." She looked up at me and laughed again. "What we do is visit each other. We go and stay with friends in their country places; then they come and stay with us at our beach houses. We go to someone's ranch in Argentina. We go down to Rio sometimes. We're busy! This takes up all our time."
"Then we get married," she added.
While she was telling me this, Cristina was sitting on her bed with no clothes on, a thick maroon towel wrapped around her head. She had a bigger, thicker towel wrapped around her body, tucked in on itself at her left armpit. Her legs were shaved perfectly smooth. She was painting her toenails, very meticulously, and she had tiny puffs of cotton separating her toes. She had a bottle of scarlet nail polish, and undercoat, and overcoat, and bottles of other luxurious things -- emollients and oils and lotions. It looked as if a professional had just stepped out of the room for a moment, in the middle of doing a job on Cristina's toes.
I never did my toenails at school. Even today I've never done my toenails. My feet are large and rather homely. Putting scarlet shimmer on my big, square nails would be an error, and I can't help knowing this. I loved the way Cristina put shimmer on her toes, the way she put shimmer anywhere, everywhere, wherever she wanted.
RISTINA got married two years after we graduated from boarding school. She invited me to the wedding, but it was during my final exams, and I couldn't go. In fact, I never went down to see her. We wrote to each other for a few years, but Cristina is not much interested in writing. After the letters stopped, she sent Christmas cards, and each year I would examine her family photograph: there was Cristina, looking wonderful, tanned and gleaming, with her delicious, smooth caramel skin and her thick, dark hair and sleepy eyes, standing beside her husband, who was very handsome. Cristina had always said she would marry only a handsome man. His name was Carlos, which she pronounced "Car-los," with a wonderful sort of gargle between the syllables. Car-los was tan too, with a square face, dashing low eyebrows, big, brilliant black eyes. The children looked like Cristina, exactly. Two girls and a boy. I watched them on the Christmas cards, turning more and more like Cristina each year, their chins pointed, their small, perfect bodies supple and alert, their features neat and animated. I knew their names: Analisa, Jorge, Elenita. Sometimes when I was thinking about Cristina, I would say those names in a whisper to myself: Analisa, Jorge, Elenita. They had such a crackle, such a lilt. That seemed to be the way Cristina's life was.
After college I got married, and in the beginning I thought I would have children too. I sent Cristina Christmas cards, sometimes seasonal pictures of reindeer or snowy forests and sometimes snapshots of Mark and me. Every year I hoped I would be able to put a note on our card: "Next Christmas there'll be three of us!" I imagined writing the notes. I imagined different ways of making my announcement, something lively or funny or clever. A photograph of the two of us with a note next to it: "How many people are in this picture? Wrong."
Cristina didn't come to my wedding, because she was pregnant with her first child. She was too big to travel, she told me. She couldn't move, she told me. I smiled as I read this, trying to imagine Cristina as big as a house, lying like a languorous whale on a sofa out on a verandah, long-leafed plants in giant urns at each end. I liked the image of her sleepy and swollen. This is what it's like, I thought to myself, with a little thrill of anticipation. Soon I would know about this: morning sickness, fatigue, swollen ankles.
When I learned that she had become pregnant again, three years later, I felt a jolt. It seemed unfair that she should be pregnant for the second time before I was for the first. Then it happened a third time. I saw her swollen belly on the Christmas-card photograph that year, with a casual hand laid on top of it, and I felt betrayed and abandoned, as though some promise to me had not been kept. I loved Cristina, and I didn't begrudge her having children. But when she did, I felt the absence of my own.
Cristina always asked on her Christmas cards when I was going to come down and visit them, and I thought for years that I would. But I never found a good time to do it, so I just kept Cristina and Carlos and the three tiny Cristinas in my head. I imagined them living luxuriously in a low colonial city with stone buildings, wide colonnaded avenues, palm trees, and scarlet flowers erupting everywhere.
When I heard about the revolution, about assassinations and hostages and desaparecidos, I worried. I wrote Cristina twice, but she didn't reply. I hoped they had moved to Guatemala, where Carlos had family and business interests, or somewhere else less dangerous. Carlos and Cristina came from very rich families, and it seemed that everyone they knew was rich. Being rich had originally seemed like a great shining carapace of protection over them, shielding them from everything: from having to go to college, having to wake up in the night with a crying baby, having to carry money, having to stand in line at the supermarket, having to find a parking place. But during the revolution being rich took on another aspect. It seemed like a signal they gave off continually and involuntarily, which made them terrifyingly vulnerable, as if they were targets for heat-seeking missiles that followed them no matter how they twisted and turned, no matter what they tried to do to save themselves.
I hoped that Cristina and her family were somewhere safe, and I found out later that they were. They had gone to Guatemala.
Then one year they turned up in New York, the whole family, for a week before Christmas. Cristina called me, and we made a plan to meet for lunch. She looked just as appealing as she always had -- vivid and exotic, her clothes a little brighter than a New York woman's, her jewelry a little more brilliant. She held my shoulders tightly in her hands and kissed me on both cheeks.
"Julie!" she said. "You look wonderful!"
I didn't look wonderful. I knew that. I'm plain, with pale, freckled skin. I've put on a middle, and I wear my skirts below the knee. My hair is just as it was at boarding school, shoulder length, and held back from my face with a tortoise-shell band. Even when I remember to wear earrings, as I did that day, they look as though I've borrowed them from someone. I've always looked like this. I never had the nerve to wear clothes that were tight and spangled, jazzy and stretchy. When I was at school, wearing clothes like that seemed wrong. I felt I had to make a moral choice, and that somehow I was coming down on the right side. I think I believed in some long-term goal, as though later on I might get an award for Discreet Dressing. Now I can't change; this is the only way I know how to dress.
(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)
Illustrations by Jeffrey Smith.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.