• “Aguacero”

    An O. Henry Prize-Winning Story by Patricia Engel

    I remember the sky had been dark since morning, as if protesting the start of another day. Rain held off till afternoon, then started heavy, long gray water shards dropping like scissors on the pavement. I’d just left my therapist’s office without an umbrella and stopped for a pack of cigarettes in one of those midtown shops, the size of a closet and smelling of nuts and tobacco, because nothing makes me want to smoke more than a visit to the shrink.

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    I remember the only other customer was a boy of about 15 paying for rolling papers and a lottery ticket he told the cashier was for his mom, and after, I stood outside the shop, my back pressed against the glass window under the cover of the black awning, trying to decide if I should make a run for the nearest subway all the way over on Eighth Avenue. I hated city rain. The kind that sticks to your face, stiffens your hair, makes you stink like a dog drenched in its own piss. Nothing like the gentle purifying showers you see out in the country or by the sea.

    One of my cousins in Bogotá once taught me a trick: light a cigarette, hold it out with your hand, and an available taxi will appear, guaranteed.

    I opened a flame and extended my cigarette arm to the curb. For my cousin, the trick never failed. For me, nothing.

    I retreated to the shelter of the awning, watching the rain slashes, the glossy street current rush toward the sewers.

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    “You’re Colombian.”

    This came from a guy I hadn’t noticed standing next to me.

    Something about urban living makes it so you don’t even feel when your arm is pressed against a stranger’s.

    “How would you know?”

    I didn’t speak much in those days unless I had to, so my own voice sounded strange, defensive, even to me.

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    “You have an Andean face. Also, you just tried to call a taxi with a cigarette. Only Colombians do that.” He asked if I could spare one so I pulled another cigarette from my pack and passed him my lighter.

    I watched the guy sideways as we both smoked. Late forties, maybe. Clean-shaven and pale. Small eyes behind square glasses. Sweatered, with hemmed jeans and brown suede loafers. He smoked vigorously, like a guy who’d been deprived, talking about how this rainstorm was like those of the Amazon, blinding and impossible to navigate. But, he said, rain sounds the same no matter where you are, and he could close his eyes and almost forget this was New York if not for the midtown smells, the song of car horns and screeching brakes.

    For the first time in a while I wanted to talk, but felt my tongue curl into the back of my throat like a sleeping mouse. That very day, my shrink, a guy I’d been seeing three times a week for the past two months and who barely ever said a word even when challenged by my silence, told me I should push myself to talk to a stranger, to make conversation, to connect.

    When I was down to a nub, I flicked it to the street and lit up another. The guy had the nerve to ask for a second cigarette too. I thought about telling him he could go in the shop behind us and buy his own pack, but just handed one over. He seemed to sense debt accumulating between us and stared at me as I held the lighter out for him.

    “Can I invite you to wait out the rain with me over a coffee?”

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    I said okay because I didn’t feel like going home and had no other place to go. On afternoons like that, during the lull between therapy and the night, I often rode the train to the end of the subway line and back just to eat away a few hours, and because it was a way to be with people without really being with people.

    We ducked into a coffee shop a few doors down. The exposure was enough to soak the back of my jacket and top of my head. We found a table along the wall. He went to the counter and ordered us two coffees, both black with no sugar. I remember we sat opposite each other as if we’d been assigned to one another for the afternoon, with duty and resignation. He didn’t seem particularly curious about me, just that he preferred company to being alone, and maybe it was the same for me.


    His name was Juan and he was Colombian going several generations back. is much he revealed on that first afternoon. But he’d abandoned Colombia for Europe a decade earlier, and now lived in Madrid with his girlfriend of twenty years and their daughter, who was six. He didn’t ask much beyond my name and my instinct was to tell him a fake one—Sara. But by the end of our coffee, when the rain started to lift, he asked for my number and I gave it. He said we could meet for another coffee sometime. Maybe a walk in a park. We were speaking only Spanish together at this point—I don’t recall at which point we’d made the shift—his with a heavy Bogotá monotone. Without my asking, he admitted he’d recently turned 50 and I responded that I was 25.

    “Look at us,” he said, “both partial markers of an incomplete century.”

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    It was only a day before he called. I hadn’t worked in three months, though nobody knew this, since a strange June when I was no longer able to sleep. I’d spent entire nights sitting on the stoop of my apartment building watching people come in and out, pass on the street, waiting for dawn, when my eyelids would finally surrender. I’d manage only a two-hour nap every 24 hours, and then my heart would begin beating at high velocity, vibrating through my gut and in my throat, and I would fall into a corner on the floor, place my head between the crease of two walls, and weep.

    I didn’t want Juan to know where I lived so I agreed to meet him at a café on Elizabeth Street and looped around the whole block so he wouldn’t know from which direction I’d come. He appeared even older to me in the September sunlight, face laced with small wrinkles, and the lenses of his frames looked even thicker. He asked if I worked or was in school, so rather than admit I spent days hiding in my apartment, only venturing out to sell my best clothes at consignment shops as my only income, I took the opportunity to lie again, something I used to feel very guilty about, and invented a whole other life, said I was completing a Ph.D. in anthropology—ridiculous since the only anthropology class I’d ever taken, I’d dropped midsemester. He asked what I was specializing in and I said the indigenous peoples of the southern Americas, specifically the Sikuani tribe in Colombia because I’d just read an article about how many of them had been massacred by paramilitaries.

    I impressed myself with my ability to lie on the fly. It was easier than being honest.

    He told me he’d been a lawyer in Colombia, and in Madrid worked as some kind of legal consultant, but he’d given that up last year to pursue his dream of writing a novel, which he described as a time-travel supernatural saga about a 21st-century Colombian man who travels to ancient Europe and discovers the secrets of destiny, or something like that.

    We talked about movies, then books, then about the city; museums and parks and specific streets we each liked to walk. He said he liked to explore neighborhoods at night and I said I did, too.

    Then he let slip: “I’m not really supposed to be in this country right now.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Well, my girlfriend thinks I’m in London. My family thinks I’m in Paris. But I’m here. In this café. With you.”

    “What are you supposed to be doing in London?”

    “Research for my book. That’s what I told her. But I was really planning on spending the month in Paris. I have another girlfriend there, you see, and she’s been pressuring me to spend more time with her. But when I went to the airport, I canceled my ticket and instead bought one for New York. Nobody knows I’m here.”

    “Your family knows about the second girlfriend?”

    “Yes. They know I’ve been planning on leaving my girlfriend in Madrid for a long time. If not for our daughter, I would have left years ago.”

    “I can’t imagine spending 20 years with someone, then leaving them.”

    “You’re young. You will live through plenty of things you never could have imagined.”

    “I guess you’re off the hook because you never took vows.”

    “A child is a kind of vow. That’s why I’ve come here. To think.”

    “Maybe you should see a therapist.”

    “I don’t believe in that shit. I’ve spent years in therapy and it was useless. My sister is a psychologist and people pay her a fortune even though she’s a lunatic whose own life is a disaster. It’s a crime, the industry of therapy. We are all fucked no matter what and when you finally understand that—poof!—you’re cured.”

    When we left each other that afternoon, he kissed me on the cheek in that casual way of every other Colombian on earth, but it felt different, suspended, and I was suddenly aware of his prickly stubble on my cheek, tiny hairs otherwise invisible in daylight.


    The next day he called to invite me for dinner. He said he would cook. He was staying at the apartment of a friend near the newsstand where we met. I had an appointment with the shrink and would be in the neighborhood anyway so I agreed but didn’t tell him that detail. During my session, I talked about meeting this new stranger.

    “You might even call us friends at this point,” I said.

    The shrink asked if I was experiencing feelings of attraction toward Juan. I said no. Besides, he was old and already had two girlfriends and I found men who couldn’t make up their minds kind of pathetic.

    He was staying in one of those cramped old Hell’s Kitchen buildings with fire escapes down the front and back, where you can hear everything happening in every apartment from the hall. Kids squealing, televisions buzzing. A man yelling that something wasn’t his fault.

    Normally, if going out with a stranger or to a guy’s house for the first time, my friend Thea and I would tell each other exactly where we were headed with names and addresses, but today I hadn’t told her or anyone anything. My shrink had gotten me to admit a few weeks earlier that I was harboring anger toward Thea because she’d been the only person I told what happened and her response was that he was my boyfriend, he was allowed to do with me what he wanted, and I was the girlfriend, so I had to take it. “It’s not a tragedy,” she’d said. “All women go through it. You need to forget it and move on.”

    I knocked on the door marked 302 and Juan swung it open, an apron tied around his waist. He led me into the apartment, a rectangular studio with a queen-size bed pushed into the corner, a small living area along the long wall, and most other walls lined with bookshelves, framed posters of old European films, photographs and postcards thumbtacked to vacant patches of Sheetrock.

    I sat on an armchair while Juan dipped into the tiny kitchen and returned with a bottle of wine, which he poured into a pair of glasses already set on the coffee table. He toasted to meeting new friends, to the unknown, and we both sipped, though I kept my lips pressed tight so no wine would slip into my mouth.

    Juan cooked pasta. We ate from plates set on our laps. He said he loved cooking but their chef in Madrid never let him, and the girlfriend in Paris always wanted to go to restaurants. He’d learned to cook the few years he’d lived on his own in Bogotá. In his child- hood home, men weren’t allowed in the kitchen.

    “Why did you leave Colombia?”

    “The same reason everyone leaves. Colombia is a rabid dog.”

    “Do you miss it?”


    “Why don’t you go back?”

    He reached for a pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. This time he’d bought his own and offered me one, which I accepted. He took a long drag.

    “I can’t go back.”

    “Why not?”

    “Either they’ll kill me or I’ll kill myself.”

    I couldn’t tell if he was being vague to provoke intrigue or if I was crossing a line of discretion. So I pulled back, my gaze bouncing around the room from books to photographs and the bed made with boarding school tucks and folds.

    “Whose apartment is this?” I asked.

    “A journalist friend. He’s not really a friend, more of an acquaintance. I hate when people use the word ‘friend’ so liberally. He’s Dutch. I met him through another acquaintance. We once had a pleasant conversation about the Basque resistance and he offered me his apartment in New York and I offered him a room in our place in Madrid.”

    “I was in Madrid once,” I said, “but I had a stomach virus and stayed in the hotel room throwing up for four days and by then it was already time to leave so I saw nothing.”

    “A reason to return.”

    “Most cities make me ill. New York included.”

    “When I returned to Bogotá after several months in the countryside, I developed a terrible case of asthma.”

    “You became allergic to your hometown.”

    “So it would appear.”

    He stood up abruptly and asked if I wanted coffee. I told him I never drink it at night.

    “I’m sorry I didn’t think to get us dessert.”

    “It’s fine. I should go anyway.”

    In truth, I had nobody waiting for me anywhere, only a sense that I should keep things in motion, not linger anywhere too long, so I’d leave Juan’s place and migrate along city streets, probably walking the 50 blocks home rather than taking the subway or a cab. By the time I got to my building it might be midnight. The nights were still warm enough that I could sit out on the stoop with a light jacket and not feel too cold. Sometimes I brought a book outside with me though I didn’t have the concentration to read. Sometimes I tried to write in my journal, but my hand would go limp after only writing a sentence or two.

    Juan walked me downstairs to the street. I thanked him for the meal.

    “I hope it wasn’t too terrible,” he said.

    I started to feel crowded by his body so close to mine in the doorway so I walked away without that kiss on the cheek that had become our hello and good-bye custom since yesterday. I didn’t think much of it but seconds later, as I crossed the street, he was at my side.

    “Sara. Did I do something wrong?”

    “No. Why?”

    “You just seem, I don’t know.”

    “You don’t know because you don’t know me,” I said.

    We were on the corner now, standing by a garbage can as pedestrians passed close.

    “I want you to know something. I’m not sure why I want you to know it. I left Colombia because I was kidnapped. They held me for five months. When they released me, I left the country within a week. I will never go back. Maybe this makes me a bad person, a man with no loyalties, no character.”

    “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

    “It happens to many, and usually much worse. Some they take to the jungle for years, so long their own families forget about them. And when they’re freed, they don’t think to leave their country. I’m lucky in comparison, yet I ran away.”

    “Survival requires different things of different people.” I don’t know where in me this came from. It was something I hadn’t even begun to understand for myself.

    “Can we spend some more time together? I feel comfortable with you. I can’t explain it.”

    I nodded. I felt the same but wasn’t yet ready to say it too.


    I’d known other people who were kidnapped. It’s not only a Colombian thing like newspapers and movies want you to think. Guerrillas and paramilitaries didn’t invent or even perfect the art of secuestro. Governments have always done it much better.

    Back in my hometown, a Jersey suburb where everyone had eyes on each other, a girl from my high school was kidnapped by the young couple she babysat for when they went on the run on account of credit card fraud. The girl’s parents hired a detective, who tracked her down in Jacksonville three months later. She was hooked on pills and heroin. Our mothers were friendly, so I overheard whispers that even after rehab the girl was never the same, and my father never let me babysit for gringo families after that.

    In college, the mother of a girl from my 20th-Century Art class disappeared while walking the dog on First Avenue. The professor canceled class one day so we could all help post signs with the mother’s picture around Central Park and the Upper East Side. Months passed with no clues and people muttered the husband should be a suspect, though he was never charged. With the spring thaw, a jogger spotted the mother’s body on the banks of the East River, fully clothed, still wearing her wedding ring and her gold watch. Police never figured out who did it. The dog was never found.

    I heard a television shrink once say the easiest people to hurt are those who’ve never been hurt before.

    They’re the ones who never see it coming, and afterward, it takes a long time for them to understand what’s been done to them.

    “He loves you,” Thea said. “You have to forgive and let go.”

    I wondered why it had become my burden.

    He once told me that, as a kid, when his father was upset with him or one of his brothers, he would take them alone to a tool shed at the far end of the house property. He’d have the boy sit on a folding chair, tie his arms with a rope behind him, blindfold him, and whip him with a power cord, going much harder if the boy cried. This would last an hour. Maybe two. When it was over, the father would untie the son, fall to his knees, and cry over the child’s lap, saying it hurt him to have to do this to his own flesh and blood but he’d had no choice.

    I’d come home from a party with Thea, barely able to hold my head up or walk straight; a reaction from a couple of cocktails mixed with antibiotics for strep throat I’d finished the day before. He was waiting outside my building when we pulled up in a cab. He must have been there for hours. ea handed me off. “You take care of her,” she said. He helped me up to my apartment and into bed. I remember feeling grateful for him in that moment.


    Juan said he’d never smoked his entire life until he was taken, when the guards started giving him cigarettes to stave off his hunger. They came for him while he was in a taxi, which is why he still felt a reflexive terror whenever he got into a yellow cab. At a red light on a quiet road on the way to visit his parents in Los Rosales, a car parked close behind them and before he blinked, a machine gun had already poured into the taxi driver’s skull and another man was pulling him out the door and shoving him into the other car. Juan reached for his wallet, told them to take all his money, but they laughed, said they didn’t want his money, they wanted his life.

    They were kids, he said. Boys who’d been born and bred to die young, who spoke in indecipherable slang and code, whom he’d get to know by their voices since they’d never let themselves be seen without masks. They made him lie on the car floor, slipped a pillowcase over his head with slits for his nose and mouth, and held their boots tight on his back and neck while another drove for what felt like hours, far enough that when he was pulled out of the car, the air was different, fresh and wet like the sabana air at his family’s finca in Subachoque.

    They put him in a windowless room the size of a pantry, and now, he said, he felt most comfortable in small quarters, like the apartment of the Dutch man and his second girlfriend’s tiny chambre de bonne in Paris. ere was a bare mattress on the floor on which he spent most of his day. There was a lamp in the ceiling and they would often remove the bulb to taunt him or to control his waking and sleep patterns. At night, the guards sometimes led him into another room where there was a window with curtains drawn, and a radio and a TV, and he saw his picture ash across the news as the presenter reported there was still no clue of his whereabouts. On the radio, he heard the voices of both his parents pleading to his captors for his release. The masked boys laughed, lifting the fabric that concealed them only enough to bring a joint into their lips. They were high much of the time, Juan said, but still had rules, like that Juan had to bow his head and raise his right hand for permission to speak or use the toilet.

    The first few weeks they beat him regularly. Then they went for stretches in a kind of peace, cohabiting, eating the same crummy mushed rice and bean slop for every meal with an occasional sausage, bringing Juan a pillow and a blanket for his mattress. But then they would get a visit from a superior, or they would get drunk, and would burst into his cell and beat him into a corner, pull his hair, poke their fingers into his eyeballs, spit in his mouth, or piss on his face.

    We were in my apartment when he told me this. I had called him this time. It was late and I knew another long night was ahead for me. He arrived quickly. I put out a bowl of chips and made tea. We sat on the sofa along the window, cracked it open enough to let out our smoke but not let in too much city dust or noise of fire trucks roaring from one end of 14th Street to the other. He spoke calmly, often pausing. He said the boys told him that in these cases, when a person is held captive alone, it’s because they’re going to be killed. Otherwise he would have been placed in a house already holding two or three others, which was easier for them to manage until their release.

    “So you’re going to kill me,” he’d said, and one boy punched him for speaking out of turn, removed the lightbulb, and locked him in his room.

    I got the feeling Juan was waiting for me to ask why he’d been a target. ere must have been a reason they saw him as valuable. But I didn’t ask.

    Finally, he said, “My family is, well, a word for it would be ‘prominent.’”

    “Like drug dealers?”

    He laughed. “More like presidents and senators, on both sides.” I wondered which presidents he was related to. Most of the recent ones weren’t anything to brag about.

    The day of his release, the boys drove Juan to a parking lot behind some warehouses near El Dorado airport, that same pillowcase around his head, and told him to count to 100 very slowly before taking it off. He was so scared he counted to 500, sure they were watching and waiting and this was some kind of test. But when he removed his hood, he saw he was alone and heard the rush of nearby traffic. He walked until he came to a boulevard and asked a shopkeeper to use his phone. He called his mother.

    To this day, he said, his girlfriend still threw in his face that Juan hadn’t called her first. That was another reason he’d stayed with her this long: guilt.

    “So why didn’t they kill you?” I asked.

    Juan shrugged.

    “Either I was worth more than they thought, or not worth enough.”


    I remember it started to rain so I closed the window but Juan asked me to leave it open a crack. He said when they were holding him for two or three months already, he built up the courage to ask the guards for permission to look out the window in the room where they kept the TV and radio. He could hear the soft drum of rain through the walls, feel the humidity in his bones, but he wanted to see the rainfall, he wanted to smell it. e boys agreed to part the curtain for him only this once, and let Juan sit on a chair by the open window, his hands tied tightly behind his back and with duct tape covering his mouth so he couldn’t scream. This is how Juan understood his prison must be in a populated area even though from the window all he saw was a small eld surrounded by a high wall, and above it, the rise of the Andes in the distance. And it was on those mountain peaks, that charcoal open sky of equatorial dusk, and on that smell of rain on grass and trees, that Juan meditated for two or three minutes until he was sent back to the hard edges and walls and darkness.

    We’d smoked the last of the cigarettes and had been listening to the radio so long the station was repeating songs for the third and fourth time. Even the street had gone quiet. Juan’s narrow lids were drooping; he rested his head on an elbow propped along the back of the couch, his body turned to me from his end while I leaned against the opposite armrest.

    I stood up, went to my bedroom, and returned with a pillow. I pulled a spare blanket, one I only ever use in winter, from a closet and placed it on the cushion beside him.

    “You can sleep here. It’s a good couch. People like it.”

    He gave me a tired smile and nodded as if he’d known this is where we were headed all along. I said good night and went to my room without turning back. I locked the door behind me but stood by the wall that separated us for a while listening for movement, but there was nothing.

    That night, I slept. It didn’t happen right away. I lay on my bed, my spine resisting the flatness of the mattress. I pulled the blanket over me, pushed it off, then pulled it back on, over my shoulders and head to block out the white streetlights streaking through the blinds and across the walls and ceiling. My face grew hot, so I pushed the blanket back down around my waist, wondering what I would have done in Juan’s place, if held captive, if upon being freed my absence would have made my family and friends love me more.

    Sometimes I sat at a table with my parents and brother, surrounded by the circus hum of a crowded restaurant, hating that they could not see into me. They’d ask why I was so serious all the time, why so quiet, tell jokes to provoke me to smile. It wasn’t their fault, really, that particular blindness. But I couldn’t explain. It would break them to know they’d protected me with their lives and failed.

    Juan said his parents had prayed to la Virgen del Socorro to protect him so when he was released they made him promise to name any future daughter after her to show his gratitude. But during captivity, despite having prayed more than ever before, he’d become a complete atheist. His girlfriend didn’t care to keep the promise either. So when their daughter was born they’d named her Azul, simply because it was their favorite color, and his mother cried for days because they’d given her granddaughter such a meaningless name.

    “It’s so easy to break a parent’s heart,” he said. “I keep a distance from my daughter for that very reason. I’m afraid she’ll hurt me the way I’ve hurt my parents. One day I will regret it, I’m sure, but it’s the best I can do for now.”

    I don’t know at which point my thoughts turned to dreams. Only that they led me to the hazy consciousness of morning and I realized I had slept more that night with Juan in the next room than I had in months.


    It was the last of the summerlike days before the thorny autumn turn toward winter. Juan and I were on a bench on the riverside watching the sunset over New Jersey. The sky, graffitied with purple and fuchsia and smoky blue clouds, reflecting off of the Hudson. It hadn’t rained in days.

    For weeks, we’d made a routine of sleeping in the same apartment nearly every night. Mostly at my place, Juan on the sofa, curled on the cushions in his trousers and button-downs, only taking off his shoes but never his socks, and me in my bed, finally inhabiting full hours of rest. A few times, I went to his place for dinner and he allowed me to sleep in the bed while he leaned back in the armchair. Once, I sat up in the early hours of morning and saw him hunched over a pillow on his knees, and told him he could get in the bed too, it was okay with me. But he only shook his head and closed his eyes and somehow went back to sleep.

    He told me on one of those nights that after sleeping in the small room where they held him all those months, he could sleep anywhere. He’d trained himself, he said, because sleep was the only escape. Now he could have an equally satisfying slumber on a train, a plane, or even while standing on a street corner and holding his eyes shut for a nap of a minute or two.

    He would be leaving for Madrid the next day via a connection through London so as to keep up the lie when his girlfriend arrived to meet him at the airport. We’d spent 20 nights together and I’d never once heard him on the phone with either of his girlfriends or even his daughter. I never even heard his cell phone ring.

    He invented these ways to disappear, he said, because he’d learned all those years ago how it felt to be forgotten, and in some perverse way, he’d grown to like it.

    When it was dark, we started the walk back to my apartment. He held my hand at times, the length of a block or two. I wondered what passersby thought when they looked at us, what was their immediate impression. A man and a young woman 25 years apart, though we shared no resemblance so there was no way we could be father and daughter. And yet there was still a distance between us, a raw awkwardness that never dissipated despite all our shared nights that would make it obvious to anyone that we could not be lovers.

    The farewell was not a farewell, really, because he’d planned to come back to New York in late November and I had no plans that would take me anywhere else.

    “We’ll see each other again soon,” he said.

    We exchanged contact information and it was only when I wrote out my email address for him that I realized I still hadn’t told him my real name.

    He wasn’t mad when I confessed. Not even surprised.

    “I’ll still call you Sara,” he said, “if that’s okay with you.”


    In the ten years since, I have often wondered if any of what Juan told me was true. The taxi secuestro. The months of imprisonment. He could have gathered those details from any news report or documentary about real kidnapping victims. There have been so many.

    I couldn’t even be sure the story of the two girlfriends was true. I’d never seen pictures. But then I’d feel bad about my skepticism. He was a man who claimed to have been forced to give proof of his life through an audiocassette with a machine gun aimed at his head, while reciting headlines from that day’s El Tiempo, and recalling the names of his favorite stuffed animals from childhood so his parents would believe it was him.

    We never saw each other after that September. November came and I didn’t hear from him. I sat at my computer some nights, running my fingertips over the keyboard, wondering if I should send him a note, but I never did. I could have searched the Internet for archived details of his kidnapping, but neither of us had told the other their last name.

    A year later, I left New York. I moved to Miami, where I slept heavily through the night and awoke to the sound of doves outside my window and the aroma of sweet morning dew. Here, it rains often, and I welcome the tropical aguaceros, letting water run over my face, drip off my chin, tasting it on my lips, salty and cool and soothing like bits of ocean. I remembered Juan’s telling me that when he was released and finally returned to the safety of his parents’ home, the first thing he did was go out to the garden and rub dirt on his face, run his hands over the bark of the trees, crush bunches of leaves in his palms, and smell the air, which, while dusty and polluted, was at least not the stale air of that windowless box of a room. He’d lie for hours on his back staring at the open sky, even as allergies and asthma kicked in, and even as police came to interview him over and over about his captors. When it rained, he let himself be soaked, eyes closed, remembering the months he’d had to beg for a shower, when that room he existed in might as well have been a desert. He had never felt freer, he told me, but with night came the cold and he had no choice but to go indoors, where unrelenting panic returned, and it was quickly decided he and his girlfriend should leave for Spain, where his parents and the police agreed they would be safer.

    A few years ago, while in Madrid for the wedding of a friend, I sat by a fountain in El Retiro one afternoon and was sure I saw Juan walking by, looking older, thinner, grayer. I followed him several meters but as I approached, I realized it was someone else.

    I thought of calling him or writing him, though he’d never done so, but convinced myself that if we were to see each other again, neither of us would have anything to say.

    After a recent visit, my mother left some Colombian magazines behind for me on the kitchen table. It’s there, while thumbing through an old issue of Semana, that I recognize a face printed in color on the page. The rest of the spread shows shots of a funeral. Women dressed in black, wearing dark glasses, exiting a church with arms linked. I read that the funeral is for a man named Juan who died of a pulmonary embolism while vacationing in Marbella. The photos of the mourners are captioned with the names of his parents, his longtime companion, and his daughter, Azul, now 16.

    The article says that despite having made his home in Spain for the last 20 years, it was the wish of his family that Juan’s body be returned to Colombia for burial.

    It listed his famous relatives, presidents and senators, as he said, and made reference to the months he spent in captivity followed by a heavily negotiated release.

    I never thought to ask if a ransom had been demanded for his freedom or if it had been paid.

    He was fortunate to survive, the article said, when so many others don’t.

    What stayed with me most was when Juan told me that even though people called him brave for having endured his imprisonment, he considered himself a coward because he hadn’t had the courage to try to escape. Instead, he’d spent months waiting for permission to be free, and the shame of this truth, he said, would never leave him.


    This story first appeared in the Kenyon Review. See the other 2019 O. Henry Prize stories here.

    Patricia Engel was born to Colombian parents and raised in New Jersey. She is the author of The Veins of the Ocean, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris; and Vida, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Young Lions Fiction Award, and winner of Colombia’s national book award. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; her books have been widely translated and her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and elsewhere. Engel currently teaches creative writing at the University of Miami.

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