Writer, Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado, took her first San Miguel Literary Sala workshop in August 2007 and has attended every San Miguel Writers’ Conference since then. For the past few years she has been hard at work on a contemporary historical romance, If Only You Knew. The novel combines factual socio-political events with a compelling love story. She was nice enough to send us an excerpt from her first chapter. For more information about “Works in Progress” go to Submit Your Writing.
Mexico City: October 2, 1968
I heard no Mariachi music dancing downwind from the plaza and the bakery’s cinnamon swirl didn’t blow by my third floor balcony. I leaned over the railing, puzzled to see none of the usual food stands or flower sellers – just a few commuters, hurrying by with hunched shoulders and furtive eyes. Why was everything so different tonight?
Stepping back from the edge, I settled down into my wicker deck chair and watched the neon signs splash magenta, turquoise and lime across Mexico City’s black velvet sky. I sipped slowly but by 8:30, I’d finished my long stemmed glass of tinto. The wind bit at my bare feet and the poncho I wore weighed on me – heavy as a shroud. I shuddered, stood up, and headed inside.
I couldn’t decide what to do next. My ears had picked up unfamiliar slipping-stumbling sounds coming from the outer corridor. And they seemed to be getting closer.
“Amalia!” a gasping voice called out. “For the love of God – Help me!”
Anxiety sucked the air from my lungs. That deep baritone evoked memories I constantly tried to hold at bay. What could I say? If I pretended to not be here, maybe he would go away and I would not be forced to face him. I squinted through the peep hole set into the front door and my eyes confirmed what my gut already knew.
Like a phantom from another lifetime, there stood Alejandro Mendez.
A decade had passed since we’d last spent time together. My mind knew enough to keep cautious but my heart had difficulty paying heed. My toes turned to ice, and I understood that this night: October 2, 1968 would be a watershed – absolutely a defining moment in my life.
“I know you’re in there – Open up Amalia!”
To stop him from making more noise, I had no choice but to release the dead bolt. I curved my lips upwards into an aloof smile – I didn’t want him to realize how much his sudden appearance had unraveled me.
But my attempts at detachment dissolved the minute I got a closer look. ¡Dios mio! I had to clamp a hand hard over my mouth to stifle my scream. Blood oozed from open cuts on his cheek, his forehead and chest. The large welts and red burns looked angry and sore. His Mao-collared shirt was torn, and his dark curls looked as matted as the fur on a stray dog’s back.
“Oh God Alejandro; what happened to you?” I managed to ask.
He slumped against the wall. “Amalia, you’ve got to help me!”
I would – of course I would. We’d been one another’s first love and seeing him huddled in the hallway made me want to wrap him in my arms. But his devotion hadn’t lasted and the betrayal devastated me. Sí Señor, another part of me wanted to slap him!
He looked like he’d pass out at any minute, and I heard the caretaker limping down the stairs. I had to get Alejandro out of sight. If the old man found an injured stranger lying in a heap right outside my door, he’d surely have him arrested and I’d be in trouble too.
“Alejandro! Someone’s coming. You’ve got to move away from here.”
He could barely stand, so I jimmied my arms under his and hauled him along like a sack of rocks. We hobbled into my home. In just a couple of minutes, he had managed to raze most of my carefully constructed defenses; how could I keep the rest of myself intact?
His knees buckled at the bedroom’s threshold – letting him lie down in there seemed the only option. He flopped hard onto the white crochet coverlet and tucked his legs and arms into a ball – grimy shoes and all! Ay-ay-ay-ay Countless times I’d pictured him there, but not like this.
“Alejandro, who did this to you?” He couldn’t get enough air into lungs to answer me. I felt as though I needed to rescue him. But from what, I had no idea. “You can’t breathe; let me loosen your clothes,” I said.
Not waiting for an answer, I opened his shirt, unhitched his belt and pried loose the first stud of his button-down Levis. He drew deeply, coughed, then stretched out his long legs and immediately fell asleep. The whorls of dark hair on his bare chest glistened damp with sweat, and I saw how his eyes twitched wildly underneath the closed lids. I had no experience with this – and no idea what I should be doing. I dabbed at his grimy wounds with a towel. Maybe the lesions weren’t as bad as they looked?
¡Madre purisima! Ugly, angry noises screamed at me through the open window – only half an hour ago the street had been empty. Now I heard heavy traffic, blaring car horns, emergency sirens, and—I think maybe machine gun fire! A whiff of sulfurous smoke burned my eyes and frigid air blew through the lace curtains. I jumped up and slammed the window sash all the way down.
Alejandro had not changed position. Obviously he had a head injury; I should probably be trying to keep him awake. What would I do if he went into a coma? If I had to call for an ambulance, how would I explain his presence in my bed? I listened hard and decided his breathing sounded even; I could wait fifteen minutes before waking him. In the past I’d seen him restore his energy with just a short nap. I pulled my dressing table stool right up beside him, sat down just centimeters away, and waited.
Before the quarter hour had elapsed he rolled his head, shifted his weight, and then fell back onto the over-sized pillows. Not completely awake, he blinked at me.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“In my apartment; don’t you remember? Do you want me to call a doctor?”
He shook his bloodied head and looked at me with terror in his eyes, “¡No! ¡Nadie! – No one can know where I am. Por favor Amalia, tell me about the massacre.”
¡Dios mio! That must have been machine gun fire I heard outside and tear gas that burned my eyes. And that would be all I could tell him. I had no idea what he meant by ‘massacre.’
He groaned when I told him I had no information. “You haven’t heard about what’s going down at the “Plaza de las Tres Culturas?”
I knew that he meant the main square in Tlatelolco, a huge public housing complex of yellow-colored concrete apartment buildings not far from here. More people lived in those bunker-like flats than in my home town of Mérida. A major disturbance there would explain why less people had congregated in my street tonight.
I didn’t have a clue as to why the university students would have been gathered today, but looking at Alejandro, obviously something terrible had happened. To hide my ignorance I downplayed my concern: “I haven’t been keeping track,” I told him. “There have been so many marches this summer.”
His face flashed in anger. He needed me on his side but he could barely control himself. He gripped my arms and glared into my eyes, “Don’t you understand Amalia? Tonight’s tragedy at Tlatelolco makes all the violence that’s happened before look innocent. Believe me, October 2nd 1968 will be remembered as the date our country changed forever. We’ll never be the same after this.”
But of course I couldn’t comprehend that; I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t seen anything. My mistrust of his radical politics broke us up ten years ago, and I still did not want to be involved in any mayhem. He most likely felt disappointed because I refused to act like a ‘comrade.’ I tried another dodge: “And why are you here then, instead of in the plaza helping your students?”
He took a big draught of air and closed his eyes. “Amalia, I’ve just escaped from there! Don’t you know what the government’s doing? They want to contain the protests at any price.” His eyes bulged… “¡Coño! They call us dangerous, but they’re the criminals. In Tlatelolco, at 6:00 p.m. – the army went berserk and opened fire on the crowd.”
He kept raving on and on. I could barely understand him, so I tried to leave the room and see what information I could find on the television. His hands caught my wrists, and he looked frantically towards the window. He asked if anyone could see us from the street, and then he begged me to stay right there with him. I had never seen Alejandro so afraid.
I assured him that we were completely hidden from view. I sat back down beside him and tried to get his mind focused on something concrete. But my question about what happened to the thousands of people who live in the apartment buildings of Tlatelolco only
His eyes filled with tears. Then he began jerking and flailing about. I pushed a pillow at him: “Grip this!”
He clutched the soft cushion to his midsection and rocked back and forth. “Amalia. It looked like Armageddon. The residents couldn’t believe the brutality happening right outside their homes. All of them were trapped – and us too. Protestors, city cops, old people, mothers with their children, school kids, little dogs. Everyone pushed and screamed, trying to get away, but they couldn’t. The army had all the main exits blocked and barricaded. I wanted to keep my group together, but when we heard the shots and saw bodies falling, the kids panicked and scattered all over the place.”
“And what did you do?” I asked him.
“When they stampeded towards the buildings, I ran after them but I couldn’t catch up. My path was blocked by a tank.”
“A tank? In a public square?” No, I couldn’t believe that and I told him so.
His grip on my arm began to hurt. “Amalia, are you listening?” Do you think the army would come on bicycles to stifle a student rebellion?”
I wrestled myself loose and turned away from his cold look of disdain. I hated the guilt he made me feel for not being able to commit to social causes as he did.
When we first met, he used to send me love notes and he gave me a tiny gold locket. He listened to my dreams and encouraged me. He admired my ideas. He said I had originality, energy, curiosity, and passion. Over coffee one summer afternoon he took my hands and kissed them. “We’ll get married Amalia, and when I’ve graduated I’ll find a job, and pay for your tuition at the “Universidad de México” – for your Architecture degree.”
I’d fallen in love with that Alejandro. And he with me – until Susana came along and convinced him I would be a drag on his ambitions. Listening to him now I realized that she had been at least partly right. I´d never felt an obsession to help the oppressed. And that’s what fueled Alejandro’s commitment – obviously he chose Susana over me. When we saw each other the last time he’d said: ‘Amalia, you are just too young, too self-absorbed, too unaware of and unconcerned with the needs of our people. I don’t think you’re cut out to be the partner I need.’
I stopped replaying the past when he started ranting again. “So many people were bleeding and moaning. ¡Ay Dios! I saw a school girl pulling on a soldier’s arm. She must have been – maybe twelve. She cried and begged the bastard to release the semi-conscious kid he held by the collar – probably her brother. The cabron shot her point blank in the face. Just like that! I saw the blood come out through her mouth and knew she was beyond help. He realized I’d witnessed his crime, and he raised his gun. I wanted to strike back for the girl, for her brother, for myself – so I flew at him and his head smashed into the ground with a sickening thud. When he didn’t get up, I tore off!”
My mind felt numb; had Alejandro killed him? I knew I couldn’t ask, but I suspected that the horror of thinking he might have, could be the main cause of his extreme anxiety.
In an attempt to distract him from that scene, I asked if he wanted me to clean up his cuts. He hardly heard me; his mind had remained at the battleground.
“I tried to help the injured. But another couple of cops caught me and slammed me with their heavy clubs. Harder and harder. They would have killed me, but luckily, the roar of a nearby explosion distracted them for a split second. They lost their grip, and I pulled free. I ran like a madman and dropped into the ruins on the north side of the plaza. I goddamn flew until I’d put six blocks between myself and everything back there.”
He sounded so sad and defeated when he said: “I knew I couldn’t help anyone, so I sank down and crawled out of sight.”
I had no way to gauge how much of what Alejandro told me was true. But one thing I did know— the government desperately wanted to keep all of us in line. Over the past several years they had spent billions of pesos preparing for the Olympics, and they would not tolerate a group of ‘whiny students’ derailing their carefully orchestrated plans. They wanted the world to see our country as the most developed nation in Latin America. For our president, that goal trumped every other consideration.
Alejandro struggled into a sitting position and ripped off the sweaty soiled shirt that clung to his back, and with it, he shed his introspection. “I thought my lungs would burst! I flagged a taxi, but the son of a bitch wouldn’t stop. I slunk towards the payphones by the “Teatro Bellas Artes.” I figured if I could call Susana, she’d come and get me. I fished in my pocket for pay phone change, but I felt no wallet, handkerchief or coins – everything had fallen out. I had no money.”
If he noticed me fluster at the mention of his wife or his lack of cash, he ignored it. By now I’d figured out what he would say next.
“If those army goons had my ID, I knew they’d be looking for me, I couldn’t risk going home. But I remembered that you lived close by.”
I couldn’t help turning sarcastic. “You’ve walked by here before, haven’t you? Ten years with zero contact between us, and you choose precisely this moment to drop in on me – Just who do you think gives you that right?”
Author, Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado, is originally from Canada, but has lived in Mérida, Yucatán, México since 1976. Her academic formation is in Education, although writing has always been a passion. She worked as the Mérida correspondent for The Mexico City News from 1981 – 1992, has written feature articles, and currently has an intercultural lifestyle and writing blog: http://writingfrommerida.wordpress.com/
Her earlier books Tomando Agua de Pozo (Self Published 2008) and Magic Made in Mexico (Editorial Mazatlan 2010) are useful resources for those who are experiencing cultural adaptation challenges. Joanna belongs to the “Merida Writers Group.” The ten members are in the process of editing a collection of short stories that will be published this fall.
If Only You Knew covers the twenty year period following the student massacre at Tlatelolco on October 2, 1968. It is the first of a three book series that will bring the protagonist Amalia Vasquez and her immediate circle up to the present time. Politics is an important component of the novel, but it is also replete with romance, cultural nuances, and the magical realism that permeates absolutely everything in Mexico.