Carla

Arthur Powers

SELECTED BY KATY CARL, EDITOR IN CHIEF

(Rio de Janeiro — 1968 / Paris — 1973)

1.

Carla Alves was twenty-three when she came from Rio de Janeiro to Paris: a woman of medium height, with dark blonde hair, a fresh white complexion, and thoughtful hazel eyes. At twenty-three she was an optimist by nature, raised in a home filled with love, and—despite all that had happened—tending deep inside to hope for the best, to trust people. But she was wary.

Unlike many Brazilians, she came to Paris not as an exile but as a graduate student. Her parents, both medical doctors, had married late—they were nearing their mid-thirties when Silvi, Carla’s older sister, was born. Carla was born two years later. Both girls had been brought up to be well educated. To her parents’ generation, being well educated included speaking French fluently.

Their parents had shown no disappointment when neither daughter wished to enter medicine. Each girl, their mother said, had to find the discipline she liked best. In 1965, Silvi took the university entrance exams in sociology, placed among the highest students, and entered the Federal University. This was a year after the Revolution that had brought the military to power; student leaders had been arrested and the National Student Union had been closed down, but the heaviest crackdowns on the universities did not take place until 1969 and the climate when Silvi entered was tense but still fairly open. Within a few months, Silvi—with the intense intellectual passion that she brought to everything in life—was talking about slums, class structures, peasant leagues, and the need to change society. She became active in JUC—the Catholic university student league viewed by many as radical. Their parents, who were Catholic in a calm way, were bemused by this allegiance but probably, Carla thought when she looked back at that time, relieved that it was not a Marxist group. Her parents thought anything Silvi did was amusing but essentially wonderful. Carla herself smiled when she thought of Silvi in those days—her thin face, sparkling dark eyes, definite nose—waxing passionate about sociological theories that had seemed dry to Carla.

She had never been intellectual like Silvi. Silvi was brilliant, Carla was smart. She recognized this and in no way resented it. She loved and admired her sister with all her heart and it seemed only natural to Carla that Silvi was, in many ways, the center of family interest. Whatever Silvi said or did was interesting, compelling—in many ways, family life seemed to focus around her.

When Carla’s own time came to take the university entrance exams, she took them in belles-lettres, a noncompetitive area in which she placed very well. She was accepted into the Federal University—which was free—but decided to go to the Catholic university because she had met and liked one of the professors there—an older woman who seemed kind and understanding. This decision was unusual as the Federal University, in addition to costing nothing, was considered more prestigious. But her parents cared little about prestige and did not have to be concerned about cost.

Like many middle-class Brazilians, their parents were not against the military takeover. Since the days of the monarchy, the military had been viewed by most Brazilians as the final political arbiter: If things got out of hand, the military stepped in, set them straight, then stepped out again. This had happened in 1945 and again in 1954. The Goulart government, which the military ousted in 1964, was not popular. But it had not occurred to Carla’s parents—or anyone else of their class—that this time the military intended to stay, or that the takeover might touch them personally.

But that was before it happened.

It was in 1968.

Before the military takeover in 1964, students had been a highly vocal and visible force on the left. The repression following the military coup—the closing of the National Students’ Union, the arrest and torture of many student leaders—and continued police surveillance had pushed many of the radical groups underground. A tremendous repressed tension permeated the university campuses.

In March, 1968, the tension burst in Rio. Student protests erupted over rising university fees, inadequate facilities, cuts in the national budget for higher education.

Carla went to a few protests because Silvi was helping to organize them, but she did not find them very interesting. Deep down inside, she agreed with Silvi’s politics—it was obvious that things were unjust, that the poor and working people needed more to live on, needed to be treated more fairly. But she didn’t like the protests—the shouting, the confusion—and didn’t really see how they helped. It seemed to her that the students focused on things—like fees and budgets—that were peripheral at best. Her father always said that, in a country where half the population was illiterate, where public elementary schools were a joke, free federal universities only benefited the wealthy. But Silvi explained to her that the reasons for protests weren’t really that important. They were leverage points, Silvi said, and Carla assumed she was right—Silvi usually was right. Even so, Carla found she couldn’t get involved in the protests, and she usually stayed away from them.

She worried about Silvi, though. Late in March, the military police fired on student demonstrators and a student was killed. Carla came home late that afternoon and found her father and Silvi in the only shouting argument she had ever heard at home. Silvi didn’t know what she was up against—her father’s loud voice came rolling out of the living room—police, death squads: killers, torturers, filled with twisted hate against people like her—and Silvi replied sharply: “Nothing will change if we all huddle in our houses like cowards.” Her father’s face was red with anger as Carla entered the room. Silvi turned and walked out.

The next day, the funeral procession for the martyred student, marching along the Avenida Rio Branco in downtown Rio, was joined by thousands of people. Silvi was part of the committee that organized the procession. Carla didn’t go, but she did go a week later to the student’s seventh-day Mass, held in the Candelária Church on the Avenida Presidente Vargas. It was noon, and the huge, beautiful baroque church was filled with mourners—students, politicians, people from nearby offices on their lunch break—expressing solidarity against the government. They came by the thousands, filling the church, blocking the entrances, filling the street outside and slowing traffic.

After Mass, as Silvi and Carla were coming out of the church accompanied by a young priest from their parish, they became aware of a sudden silence, followed by a burst of confusion in front of them. Down the street, a line of mounted cavalry stretched across the avenue. As Carla watched, the soldiers drew their swords and started toward the crowd, bearing down, swords swinging. The crowd paused, hesitated, then broke, people running in panic back toward the church, off into side streets and buildings, the line of soldiers coming on. They seemed to be using the flat sides of their swords, but Carla saw a gash open on one man’s neck as he ran, blood flowing profusely.

“Damn them!” she heard Silvi mutter, then saw her sister pushing forward, chin out, ready to confront the soldiers. Carla reached out and grabbed her arm; the priest caught hold of Silvi’s other arm and together they pulled her back into the church. “They can’t do that,” Silvi said, turning to the priest, her dark eyes welling up with unshed tears. “They are doing it,” the priest said calmly, “Stay here,” and he stepped back out through the open door of the church onto the street. Carla pulled on Silvi’s arm, but she wasn’t strong enough to stop her, so she went out—reluctantly—with her. But by that time the cavalry had turned around, sheathed their swords, and were riding off, leaving a lot of people scared and a few bleeding, none seriously wounded or dead.

A few evenings later, Silvi didn’t come home.

With all her activity, Silvi never stayed out late without letting them know. Her parents began telephoning some of Silvi’s friends.

There had been, they learned, a quiet local crackdown on some of the university groups. Leaders of radical groups had been taken away—arrested, some people said. Others didn’t say it to them, but the underlying fear came through—disappeared, dead.

For three days Carla and her parents barely slept, telephoning everyone they knew, her father and uncles going out, combing the jails, making contacts. On the third day they received a phone call and Carla’s father rushed out of the house. “Silvi’s alive,” Carla’s mother said to her, “you can go get some sleep,” but neither of them slept until her father and uncle got home six hours later, bringing Silvi with them.

She was alive, but barely so. Not that her body was dead—it was bruised and beaten and God knows what else—but it was functioning. Her mind too was there, but now that mind—which had been so brave and confident—stared out at Carla through terrified eyes in a pale face tense with anxiety. Carla’s mother took Silvi in her arms and cried, and after awhile it seemed that Silvi cried too, tears running out of her eyes in an otherwise still face, as though the prisoner inside wanted to come out.

Her parents were medical doctors and that—God knows—was no blessing at the moment. Carla still remembered vividly her mother’s face after she came out of Silvi’s bedroom that first evening. It was a face filled with horror—a horror which her mother was not able to share with her until years later—and even then, only partly. Everything evil and despicable that could have been done to Silvi had been done.

Over the weeks, with love and patience, Silvi began to get better. Carla wanted to quit school and stay with her, but her parents wouldn’t hear of it. Her mother suspended all her medical work to stay home with Silvi, and her father cut back a good deal on his. But Carla, they insisted, was young—she had to go on with life, look forward.

Still, Carla spent a lot of time with Silvi, coming home right after classes, allowing her mother to get out. She would sit with Silvi for hours—sometimes Silvi would listen to recordings of chamber music—the louder symphonic works made her nervous—or would let Carla read her stories. Carla had moved her bed into Silvi’s room, which they now shared at night—the light always on. Sometimes Silvi would talk at night—never about what had happened to her—but usually she was quiet, removed into another world. She would scream out in her sleep, sometimes, waking up, and Carla would go over to her bed and hold her, glad for the times Silvi was able to cry. “Don’t let the police take me,” Silvi cried one night, fighting her way out of a nightmare with Carla hugging her. “We won’t, querida, we won’t,” Carla had answered. But she hadn’t really understood, not really.

They never knew how she got the cyanide. She seldom went out of the house, never alone. She’d had visits from some of her student colleagues—a few had disappeared, but many had never even been arrested. In a house with two doctors, there were always odd bits of medicine around; for years Carla saw her parents torture themselves with questions as to whether they had left something lying about.

But Carla didn’t think it made much difference. She had read about alcoholics, how they can be geniuses at obtaining liquor, outwitting everyone around them. She suspected that Silvi’s mind was the same, focusing its vast intelligence on obtaining something that would make her feel safe.

It happened one afternoon when Carla was coming home from the university. It was a beautiful, slightly cool day. She got off the bus and was walking down their quiet street when she heard the siren behind her. All her life she had heard sirens with their up-and-down wail—‘hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw’—they had mocked the sirens when they were kids. But in the last few months, sirens sent shivers of horror down her spine.

The police car passed her and went on down the street. It stopped in front of her house a block-and-a-half ahead and Carla stood paralyzed for a moment, then started to run. She reached the house out of breath and looked up. A man in uniform was coming down the front steps. “Wrong house,” he said, smiling at her, and started toward the house next door. Carla slumped down in relief on the front step. She started to laugh, and suddenly she heard her mother screaming.

She ran through the front door and up the stairway to Silvi’s room. Her mother and the maid were standing there, her mother weeping. Silvi was lying dead on the floor.

2.

It was a few days after her twenty-fourth birthday. Carla had been in Paris for five months and, despite the many Brazilians there and her own fluent French, she was intensely lonely. It was the first time she had lived away from home, and she missed her parents—her mother’s sensitive, intelligent groping to make sense of things; her father’s wry humor and sharp, analytical mind, increasingly bitter, but trying to bring reason into the world; the closeness and memories that had bonded the three of them, especially the last few years.

She had passed through all the stages of being in a foreign land: the intense excitement of the first few days—the summer warmth of the city in late August, the shining, rainy streets of September, the awareness of men’s eyes following her as she passed the outdoor cafés—the feeling of being slightly exotic, graceful and pretty as any French woman yet in a slightly more fluid, more tropical way. And then the weeks of culture shock— deep longing for Brazil, for the warmth and casualness of her own people—fed up with anything French, their silly snobberies and fetishes—and especially the way the men looked at you—not the complementary way Brazilian men did, but in their apprising French way. Then beyond into a deep appreciation of it all, a mixed love of Paris and a yearning for Rio de Janeiro, enjoying the rhythms of French life while echoing in one’s head the counter-rhythms of home, being each day more fluent in the culture around her, growing more French while realizing more fully how deeply Brazilian she was.

But lonely. Light friendships with Brazilian students—some of them wanting to be only with other Brazilians, some of them wanting nothing to do with other Brazilians. Cordial relations with French students—a few of whom actually complemented her on her French. Good work in her classes, which she liked. A young black woman from Mozambique, with whom she enjoyed having coffee, listening to her strangely intoned Portuguese, laughing about the slang words of their different countries.

There had been men interested in her—a couple of the Brazilian students, a French boy (he really seemed boyish), a young assistant professor. But no one interesting enough to let her guard down, to let into her own world.

She went to the party because the girls in the house where she lived had urged her to go. It was a mixture of people—the hostess was French, but most of the guests were Brazilian exiles. Someone had said that Miguel Arraes, the exiled populist governor of Pernambuco, might be there, but he wasn’t. There were a lot of well known people, though—not people she knew, but one of her friends pointed them out to her: professors from Brasilia and São Paulo, a couple of writers, a priest, an artist, a singer whose records she had listened to when she was a teenager. She thought that she should be impressed, but she wasn’t. She felt detached and a little bit bored. She broke away from the group she had been talking to and walked into another room.

And there he was. He was seated in a straight chair with its back pushed up against the wall, his head turned slightly away as though he were looking through the people in the crowded room and focusing on the large front window. He was of medium height, wiry thin, balding a little at the back—he was thirty-seven then, she found out later, but he looked older. He was intense, nervous, his skin pale, his nose like a sharp, hooked beak. He was not at all handsome. But he was so vulnerable—vulnerable and scared and needy—like Silvi in those last days—and Carla felt her heart splitting open as she walked over to him.

He had turned and looked up at her as she approached his chair, and she had smiled and said simply, “I’m Carla Alves,” holding out her hand. He had taken her hand in his, half rising, holding his weight with his left arm against the back of the chair. “Jaime,” he said, with the Brazilian way of using just his first name. He had looked around for another chair, found one, and brought it over for her. They had sat and talked. Mostly he had talked and she had listened.

“I looked over and saw him talking to you,” Rogerio, Jaime’s closest friend in Paris, told her months later. “I didn’t believe it. I hadn’t seen Jaime talk that way in years—just talk and talk quietly to someone for hours.”

It was from Rogerio that she learned some of Jaime’s history—his work as a student activist in Pernambuco, his arrest and torture, his reputation as an economics professor—filling in the gaps, building a framework to explain things Jaime told her. Rogerio and Jaime had grown up together in Recife, had attended the same private school, the same university. Rogerio was a homosexual and had a sensitive, almost feminine understanding of Jaime. Once, when she had known him a few weeks, she asked him outright.

“Is Jaime gay?”

Rogerio shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “Jaime’s just sort of asexual.”

Which, Carla learned, was not quite true.

She sensed the distance in Jaime, of course. That was why she had asked. Unlike most men—especially Brazilians—Jaime did not seem to be concerned with her as a woman—at least not in a sexual sense. She knew that he was drawn to her, that he would talk to her as to nobody else—and she knew that if she were not a woman he would not be drawn in this way. If she took his hand he would hold hers, if she put her arm around his waist or kissed his cheek, she sensed he liked it. But he did not make any motion toward her, did not try to touch or kiss her.

One night he was at her apartment. She was sitting on the couch and he was lying with his head on her lap. They had been talking, but now were silent, and she was gently stroking his hair.

“They kept me in solitary confinement for six months,” he said suddenly.

He had never talked about the time he was in prison. He had talked about his life as a child, his family, the days he spent working with Peasant Leagues in the sugar cane fields. He had mentioned his years at the university, his political activism, but distantly, as though it had all happened to another person at another time. He had shared his feelings about Paris, his life there, his teaching at the university, his book. Professorial, he had gone on at length about economics and how important it was to people—especially the poor. “Economics was made to serve mankind,” he would say, paraphrasing the Bible, “not mankind to serve economics.” It was a tribute to his talent for teaching that she was never bored by this, that he led her step by step through his thinking, making it alive, so that she saw an economic world peopled with real laborers and doctors and peasants.

But he spoke of prison only in passing: “Before I was arrested,” “When I got out.”

And then, tonight, starting with the six months in solitary, it came out, in bursts and jabs as he lay there with his eyes closed, her hand lying lightly on his head, and she listened, though she didn’t want to listen, to the horrors. They came out all confused and jumbled because that time for him was—would always be—jumbled like the sharp, cutting knives of nightmares. She held herself back from hushing him or from telling him that everything would be all right—could anything ever be all right again?—and listened, murmuring a word once in awhile to let him know she was there. She listened because if he needed to tell her these things she needed to hear them, and, as tears began to glisten beneath his closed eyelids, tears began to stream from her own eyes so that, when he had finished and was sobbing in her arms, she was sobbing too and holding him close. And she thought, this is what they mean when they say a man and a woman become one.

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