March 20, 1988

The country is holding its breath.

No, that’s not quite right. You have to be quiet when you’re holding your breath, you have to be still. What Chile is doing is waiting, loud and fragmented but still completely focused, for what is going to happen next.

Papá thinks voting No will plunge the country back into chaos. Mostly, Mamá won’t say anything back when he says this. He brings it up whenever I visit, and I can see her bite the inside of her lip. I can’t pinpoint exactly when she got so silent, when their fierce, loving arguments turned into him talking to the air and her moving through the kitchen like a machine. Sometimes I think it started with the bombed-out house on our street, and sometimes I think it started when her sister in San Antonio called for the first time with news of a body on the beach, but neither feels quite right. It was before. The lines around her mouth started to deepen the day we woke up and La Moneda was a skeleton. Papá, with the distance that comes of stubbornness, got louder when he stopped understanding his country. He dealt with evidence he didn’t like the way he dealt with the increased government scrutiny he faced as a poet married to a teacher: with an optimism that closes out all else. Mamá and I, unable to build that naïve wall, withdrew into ourselves.

Today, though, Mamá grabbed my arm to keep me in the sala after Papá finished speaking and got up to leave. “He’s wrong,” she said. “Well, he’s not wrong to be worried. He’s worried about the wrong thing.” Her voice was quiet, talking like people were listening. “What if he won’t let us have it? What if the country says No and all he does is decide to teach us a lesson?” I held her hand.

“Things are changing,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“When was the last time you disagreed with Papá out loud?” I could see from the look on her face that she knew I was right.

Raúl says he doesn’t want me to vote, that it’s dangerous. Oh, I should have mentioned – I got married. I was almost 30, it was time. He’s a good man. Quiet. Safe. Doesn’t care about politics very much. I tell him I haven’t decided what I’m going to do, and he furrows his brow at me.

Ana doesn’t trust the plebiscite. She says Pinochet will never let go of anything he can take by force, and even if he does, the constitution is a joke. It protects him and his men better than the people he’s been killing for years. When the assassination attempt failed two years ago, everyone I know except her breathed a sigh of relief. “You never know,” Papá said. “Someone worse than Pinochet could have come along.”

“There is no one worse,” Ana said.

And in our heads we all asked the question everyone is asking, in different ways and with different feelings but still the same question: in October, will we get to find out?

1 thought on “March 20, 1988

  1. ssvolk says:

    I agree with Ana, Clara – it’s hard to believe that after all these years Pinochet will simply say, OK, the people don’t want me, I’ll leave. But we’ll have to wait and see.

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