THIS 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.
CRISTINA 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.
Roxana Robinson is the author of (1999) and the novels (1988) and (1998). She recently received a Guggenheim fellowship.
Illustrations by Jeffrey Smith.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; The Face-Lift - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 71-77.
I'M divorced now. Mark has remarried and lives in San Francisco, where he works for a software company. He has two children -- boys, I think. I haven't heard from him in years. We have no reason to talk ever again. Nothing connects us now but pain. Looking back at that time we were together is like looking into a black tunnel of grief -- tumultuous, endless, without solace. Just thinking of his name brings back the memory of that misery.
I'm used to living on my own, though I'd hoped not to. I live in a small apartment in Murray Hill. I run a family arts foundation that specializes in music education, and we give away $50,000 a year in small grants. We review the recipients very carefully. We visit the sites, we interview the participants, we talk to other people in the field for references. We want to feel that we are rewarding the people who most deserve it. I want to give them their due.
I've always tried to be fair, and to be responsible. I once thought that was the way the world worked, the way everyone worked. At school I was always amazed that Cristina got away with what she did. I confess that at times I almost hoped Cristina would get caught at something. In those moments I resented her astonishing bravado.
I remember her one Friday afternoon during our junior year. Cristina stood coolly in the handsome front hall of the school, on the Oriental rug, next to the big Spanish chest. She was wearing a new orange suit and was waiting for a taxi to come and take her to the train with her suitcase.
"Now, let me see, Cristina. This is your uncle's name, Alfredo Pacheco?" Mrs. Winston, the housemother, held Cristina's weekend form, which she had duly filled out. Mrs. Winston was a pleasant woman, tall and lean and attractive, with black-rimmed glasses, perfectly curled-under gray hair, and a perfectly straight back.
"That's right, Mrs. Winston," Cristina said. She smiled dazzlingly at the housemother. Cristina's shoes and pocketbook matched, both dark brown. Her hair was glossy and full of bounce. She had a brown-and-orange silk scarf at her throat.
"And he lives in Philadelphia, at this address?" Mrs. Winston looked at the form.
"That's right," Cristina said. "I put down his phone number. That's where I'll be." She was going to Princeton for House-parties Weekend.
"All right," Mrs. Winston said, looking again at the form. "This seems fine." The taxi drew up to the door, and Cristina picked up her suitcase. "Have a nice time," Mrs. Winston called, and Cristina waved as she got into the taxi. She looked out at me and waved again, her smile to me slightly different. She never got caught; I never went to House-parties Weekend.
But in New York that day, when she grabbed me and hugged me, I was caught up again by her energetic intimacy, won over by her charm.
"Tell me everything," Cristina said, sitting down again, "and let's get something to drink -- or at least I hope you'll have a drink. Everyone has stopped drinking. And smoking. Do you mind?" She looked at me solicitously, holding up a cigarette.
"I don't mind," I said, "but the restaurant won't let you." We were in a small Italian place in the East Seventies, just off Madison. She couldn't smoke there or in any New York restaurant; it was now illegal.
Cristina waved her hand. "Oh, they don't mind if I smoke," she said. "I've already talked to the waiter." Someone had put an ashtray next to her, and she flipped open her lighter and lit up. I was surprised by this. I had not seen anyone smoke in a restaurant since the law was passed, and I looked nervously over at the waiter, but he walked right by our table with a bottle of wine, ignoring us completely. I wondered if Cristina had to obey any rules at all.
"What's happened to everyone?" Cristina asked, drawing hard on her cigarette, sucking in her cheeks for a long, disreputable pull. She exhaled, shaking her head and expelling a bluish cloud. "I go away for a couple of years and all of a sudden the entire population of New York has turned into goody-goodies. What is it?" She grinned at me. "I bet you don't smoke, do you?" she said, cocking her head.
"No," I admitted, "but I never really did."
"No, that's right," Cristina said, remembering. She leaned back in her chair and took another luxurious drag on her cigarette. She grinned again. "You never did. You never broke any of the rules. You made me feel like such a bad girl! I felt like a felon!" She laughed and shook her head. "But now you're a big success, eh? I hear you're the head of your foundation! ¡La Exigente!"
That's how Cristina talks -- all exclamation points and big scarlet smiles. Anything is more fun when she tells it. Listening to her, and watching her smoke, I found myself being torn, as I always had been, between simply adoring her and wishing grumpily that somehow she wouldn't get away with everything.
"You look terrific," I said, which was true.
Cristina pulled in her chin and gave me a knowing look. "Please," she said extravagantly, rolling her eyes. She put down her cigarette and turned sideways, thrusting her head out and stretching out her neck. A tiny swag of skin hung below her chin. Cristina patted the top of her hand against it. "What about this horror? But it's going," she announced. She turned back to face me and touched a line between her eyebrows. "And this."
I dropped my voice. "You're having your face done?" I asked, impressed.
Cristina shrugged elaborately. "I wouldn't call it done," she said. "Only the chin, the line in the forehead. A few little alterations -- but hey! nobody's perfect." She picked up her cigarette again and added, "Except this surgeon, I hope. He's supposed to be a genius. He's in Brazil." There was another pause while she grinned. Then she added, "I'll probably come out looking like a monkey."
I confess that when I heard this, about having a face-lift, I felt a tiny surge of moral triumph. Scarlet nails were one thing, I thought, but a face-lift was something else. A face-lift, I thought, was wretched excess -- now she had gone too far. Makeup seemed to me fundamentally different from surgery, and self-respect should keep us all from the latter. A line had to be drawn, and it involved integrity and honesty and probity. Face-lifts were definitely on the other side, the far side, of that line. That women debased themselves in trying to fight the biological fact of aging seemed clear. Women who struggled were acting foolishly, I believed, and women who didn't struggle were acting with dignity and self-confidence. So when she told me what she was going to do, I felt a thrill, as though I had at last bettered Cristina at something. I felt a jolt of self-righteousness.
"You know we've moved back to El Salvador?" Cristina asked. She took another long pull on her cigarette. "Last summer. Everyone's moving back there."
"Is it safe?" I asked.
"Well. We have armed holdups, hijackings, and murders, but no rapes. Which is to say that San Salvador is safer than New York City." She smiled and then shrugged her shoulders. "It's home. It's where I grew up. The revolution is over. Everyone is going back."
Cristina's troubles were over. She was back at home, after the revolution, with all three children and her handsome husband, and she was still rich. And in another few weeks she'd look twenty-eight again, instead of forty-two. I found myself wondering if she would go on forever getting away with things. But I knew this was meanspirited, and I dislike that side of myself. So what I said to her was that I was glad she could go home now, and I meant what I said. I do love Cristina, and I don't like my uncharitable side. I told her I was glad the danger was over.
"Well," Cristina said, and paused again. "It's not really over. It's never really over, right?" She stubbed out her cigarette and gave me her big flashy smile. "And who cares?"
THAT day in San Salvador, Cristina told the driver to pull over to the side of the street, behind the car that was already parked there. For some reason the driver was taking a long time to pull in behind the other car, which was where he had to go to be right next to the street door, so that Elvira and Consuela could step across the sidewalk, through the door, and into Elvira's courtyard.
"Andale, ándale, ándale," Cristina said rapidly, leaning forward. The driver started to say something to her, but Elvira spoke at the same time, and Cristina turned back to her mother. Their car pulled in behind the other and stopped. Consuela opened her door but didn't get out; she was waiting for Elvira, who was asking Cristina about a piece of silver she was going to return.
"Okay, okay, okay," Cristina was saying, very rapidly. "Okay, Mama, you're right. Claro que sí. I'll do it tomorrow. I don't know why I didn't do it before. You're right, the sooner the better. Okay," she said again. And just then all three women realized that something was happening.
The door that Consuela was holding nearly shut was suddenly pulled open, and Consuela herself, gray-haired, in a sleek gray dress and carrying a black bag, was yanked out by her arm. Frightened, she fell onto the grass strip along the sidewalk. The man in the doorway was holding a gun that was bigger than his face, and he grabbed at Elvira, pulling her out as well. The whole time he was talking fast, fast, fast.
Get out, he was saying. Get out or I'll kill you. Get out, he said to the driver. I'll kill you all, get out, get out. He kicked Elvira as he pulled her out. She staggered a bit and then sat down unintentionally on the grass next to Consuela, who was leaning over, holding her knee. No one was on the street; the sidewalks were empty. All the houses were hidden behind high walls and closed electronic gates.
Get out, get out, get out, the man said, pointing the gun at the driver. The driver turned his face away at once, as though that would make him safer. Then he ducked down and climbed out of the car, sinking to his knees. All these things happened quickly -- the two older women sitting heavily on the grass, the driver in his dark uniform crawling on his knees along the hard paved road.
The man with the gun was wearing a dark shirt and pants, no jacket. He had dark skin and black hair, and his face was pockmarked. His black eyes were enraged, as if hatred and wildness were the only things inside him. He pulled Cristina out of the back seat and held on to her arm as she stood next to him on the grass. He held her tightly as he pulled open the front passenger door. He was watching Elvira and Consuela then, and he pointed his gun at them. I'll kill you, I'll kill you, he promised over and over, and his voice was filled with such wildness, such heat, such fury, that no one doubted him. He slid into the front seat, pulling Cristina in after him, keeping his gun pointed at the two older women. Don't move or I'll kill you, he chanted.
Then it was like a movie, everything happening without anyone's being able to stop it -- him moving into the car, the chauffeur crawling farther and farther away along the street, Cristina's eyes brilliant as the man held his elbow around her neck in the front seat. And just as in a movie, everyone could see how things were going to unfold -- that this was how it happened, how one became desaparecida. Cristina could see that she was not going to be helped. She saw herself getting into the car with this man and his gun, leaving her mother and her children and Carlos, and the man muttering in a steady, violent stream that he would kill them all.
And then something else happened. Elvira, who was struggling to stand up, realized that Cristina had been pulled back into the car with the gunman, and she turned and ran the few steps across the grass to the hood of the car and threw herself across it, her gold earrings glinting against the hard shine of the black car.
"Don't take her!" Elvira screamed. "Don't take her, she's a mother! ¡Es una madre! ¡Tiene tres niños! Take me!" Elvira banged her thin old-woman's arms against the hood in a horrible, unsettling, embarrassing way. "Take me!" she screamed, her voice high and demanding. "Take me! Don't take her! She has three children! Take me!" She clambered up the hood in her beautiful silk-print dress, beating at it with her fragile fists, her gold bracelets jangling on the metal and her wild, screaming face looming through the windshield.
The gunman was trying to organize himself -- to hold on to Cristina with his arm hooked around her throat, to hold the gun cocked in the air, and to pull the driver's door shut and find the key and turn it in the ignition and ignore the terrible screaming of the old woman who was flailing on the hood in front of him.
He leaned out the window to shout at her. "We don't want an old woman," he yelled contemptuously. "We want the young one."
When he said that, it was as though everything stopped for Cristina, just for one moment. Everything crystallized slowly and perfectly in her mind. She heard the gunman's shout, and she could see what would happen next: She could see the car driving off, with her mother thrown onto the street, weeping and flinging her hands up in the air. She could see herself being driven to the place where the gunman's friends waited. She knew the pain that was waiting for her there among them. She could see that she would die, that they would kill her. She meant nothing to them, and once her body was still, they would throw it from the car. It would be found by the side of a road, and later it would be taken, bruised and discolored, to her family. Then her mother would weep in earnest. It was that thought -- the thought of her mother when they found her body, and of her children sinking moment by moment into the profound darkness of grief, that changed everything for Cristina.
As the gunman held her close to his body, his mind distracted, and leaned out the driver's window to shout at her mother, who was screaming at him through the windshield, Cristina bent her arm and brought it down as hard as she could, the point of her elbow driving -- as hard as she had ever imagined doing anything -- deep into the soft place where the gunman's legs met his body. What she did was smooth and exact, as in a dream, as though she had practiced that one stroke all her life, in preparation for this moment.
The gunman's face dropped like a stone toward the place where her elbow had hit him. His whole body seemed to turn in on itself, as if it now had some secret business, rolling tightly and deeply into itself with a grunt. And even before the gunman's head started going down, almost before she felt him start to crumple, Cristina found herself moving, sliding across the front seat, opening the door and spilling herself out onto the grass.
Outside the car things had changed: Elvira was pulling herself off the hood, Consuela had managed to stagger to her feet, and from the corner of her eye Cristina could see the houseman, alerted by all the commotion, by her mother's furious pounding and demands, standing in the open doorway of the house.
"Porfirio!" Cristina yelled to him at the top of her lungs. "Call the police! Kidnappers! Thieves! Call the police!" Now it was her turn, now she was yelling over and over, anger and wildness in her voice. The gunman clambered out of the car and began running toward the other car, which was idling in front of him. The chauffeur thought he was being pursued, so he lay on the street without moving, as if he were already dead, so that he wouldn't be shot. The gunman pulled open the back door of the other car and jumped in, and before the door was even shut again, the car fishtailed and skidded and roared and gunned off down the street. It was a red sedan, an old, beat-up American car. It was never found.
CRISTINA told me all that while we were having lunch. The restaurant we were in was chic, and full of women with streaked blonde hair, wearing snappy tailored suits and gold earrings. The Italian waiters wore white aprons over black pants and long-sleeved white shirts with the sleeves rolled up.
Cristina told me the story the way she tells everything, with exclamation points and pauses, rolling her eyes. She told it as though it were both extravagant and hilarious, as though the gunman, holding her desperate throat in the crook of his brutal arm, were funny; as though her three children, poised on the verge of endless grief, were funny; as though her mother, beating her frail old arms on the car's hood and shouting crazily through the windshield, were funny; as though her own brilliant and daring and courageous escape were funny -- as though the whole world were spread out before her in a series of wild and hilarious adventures, which she chose to see as absurd although she knew exactly how dangerous and serious they really were. She talked as though boldness and certainty and a fearless readiness to break rules, any rules at all, were all normal traits -- common, insignificant, negligible. She talked as though challenges were there for her amusement, as though they were simply things for her to respond to, like a swimmer lofting herself miraculously over the crests of great waves.
And I forgave Cristina the vodka, the House-parties Weekends, the smoking, the face-lift, the children. I forgave her everything.
Roxana Robinson is the author of (1999) and the novels (1988) and (1998). She recently received a Guggenheim fellowship.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; The Face-Lift - 00.08 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 2; page 71-77.