Short War

Lily Meyer

April 5, 2024 
The following is from Lily Meyer's Short War. Meyer is a writer, translator, and critic. She is a contributing writer at the Atlantic, and her translations include Claudia Ulloa Donoso's story collections Little Bird and Ice for Martians. She lives in Washington, D.C.

The thought of Dr. Lucas in Cuba clouded the May Day march for Gabriel. So did Andrés’s foul mood, though he was walking ahead with Nico, letting Gabriel guide Caro through the packed streets. Andrés’s blond head bobbed past flat wool caps and bright knit hats, glinting between a pair of toddlers waving red flags from their fathers’ shoulders. Gabriel envied Andrés’s height. Also Andrés’s dad, Cuba or no Cuba. He’d rather have a father he could admire than one he saw every day.

Caro held his hand tightly as they waded deeper into Plaza Bulnes. Bodies surged around them, close and warm. Gabriel smelled body odor, unbrushed teeth, unwashed clothes, seared meat, the harsh chemical sweetness of gasoline. The presidential palace loomed at the square’s far end, white marble glittering despite the lack of sun. The windows were all shuttered, and the center balcony had no speaker system set up for Allende to address the crowd. He must not be in La Moneda. Gabriel was disappointed for Caro—and, he supposed, for the workers that May Day was meant to celebrate—but he recognized that the president was extremely busy. Though he rejected his dad’s idea that Allende had no more military support, it was true that the radio constantly reported Army unrest, discontent in the copper mines, union leaders declaring allegiance to the right wing. What kind of union rejected Socialism? It made no sense.

The demonstration was bigger than the plaza. Marchers spilled down side streets, forked around La Moneda, clambered onto statue plinths and streetlight poles and road barriers. Drums and tambourines jangled on all sides, and someone kept banging a gong. Its brassy echo hurt Gabriel’s temples. His scalp buzzed with awareness of the bodies pressing behind him, moving him on. A woman in front of him twirled her plywood ARRIBA ALLENDE sign, nearly dropped it, then grabbed and raised it higher. Beside her, two construction workers shared a cigarette. Riot police bracketed the plaza. They stood like jetty posts in the ocean, face shields lowered, hands on their guns. Probably they hated protecting Unidad Popular marchers, but today’s demonstration was an official one. It was the cops’ job to make sure it went well.

Caro seemed not to notice the police. She was too absorbed in the crowd. She kept shouldering Gabriel, then pointing with her lips at a person of interest: a Benedictine monk dragging an armpit-height cross; a bearded man spinning a globe with all seven continents, including Antarctica, painted red; a dirty-cheeked little kid selling bright yellow packets of Ambrosoli Frugelé candies; a middle-aged woman leaning on a barricade, wool slacks sagging at her waist as she tried to flirt with a jack-booted, poker-faced cop.

Gabriel envied Caro’s enthusiasm. Ordinarily he loved the people around him at demonstrations. Today, he could only notice them. He entertained himself, briefly and childishly, with the idea of a Communist Antarctica—would the penguins unionize? Were the sea lions, with their heavy mustaches and gruff , honking voices, the ice floes’ industrialists?—but that was the furthest from himself he could get.

He nudged Caro, then pointed with his chin at the red globe. “You think there’s a working class in Antarctica?”

She laughed. Before she could answer, a megaphoned woman shouted, “Jump if you’re a worker!” and Caro bounded from the asphalt. Her mother and father were, respectively, a baker and a state-school teacher: she counted. Gabriel, who did not, kept his feet on the ground. Fighter jets buzzed overhead. Air Force exercises, he guessed, though it made no sense for the Air Force to be sending planes over La Moneda.

An amplifier shrieked, drowning out the jets. Guitar chords rang over the crowd. The disjointed drums fell into time, then the gong and tambourines, but nobody sang. The guitarist kept riffing, letting the music spiral through Plaza Bulnes. A girl who looked Gabriel’s age slipped into sight with a tray of golden empanadas, calling, “Corn-cheese-corn-cheese-corn-cheese.” Her black hair was matted, her blue dress pristine beneath an open wool coat. Steam rose in plumes from the pastries, which were still visibly wet with oil. Gabriel wondered how that was possible. She—or her boss—must have a fry vat on wheels.

He turned to Caro, who was looking at the empanada girl, too. “Hungry?”

She shook her head. “What’s her story?”

He studied the girl. He could smell her empanadas’ fresh crusts. Her skin was perfect, her gaze distant and level. She’d fit right in at an Ítalo party if she brushed her hair. “Rich girl,” he said. “Or rich until recently.”

Caro considered this. The empanada girl’s skirt swung at her bare knees. She passed Nico and Andrés, elbowing Nico a bit, and Caro said, “I doubt it. Did you see her shoes?”

Gabriel shook his head.

“Totally worn out. Hard to walk in, I bet.”

The girl vanished into a cluster of farmworkers, who soon settled between Gabriel and his friends, blocking even tall Andrés from sight. Pale dust rose from the street, kicked up by thousands of loafers and sneakers, Oxfords and boots. It caked in Gabriel’s nose and congealed on his tongue.

“Having a good time so far?” he asked, swallowing dirt.

Caro nodded. “This is the most interesting date I’ve ever been on.”

“Normally demonstrations are even better. Better energy.”

“Better energy? You sound like a hippie.”

“I could be a hippie,” Gabriel said, not meaning it. He opposed the Vietnam War, which was now staggering to an end, but other than that, he didn’t see himself fitting in well with the Jesus-curled backpackers who appeared periodically in Santiago’s parks. He didn’t like smoking pot enough; the thought of LSD terrified him. His aspirations were all wrong, besides. He didn’t want to drop out. He wanted to live permanently in Chile, and blend in.

Caro was shaking her head. “You could not.” Her braid, slung over her shoulder, wagged on her chest. “Hippies are relaxed.”

“I can be relaxed.”

“Can you?”

Gabriel felt himself reddening. He remembered perching on Ítalo’s rug with Caro, telling her—he’d been drunk, but it was true—that he disbelieved in inner peace. “I have been,” he said. “One time.”

She pulled him close, then kissed him. “I don’t want a relaxed boyfriend.”

“What kind of boyfriend do you want?” He pressed his mouth to her cheek. The crowd rippled around them. Strangers’ bodies brushed at his back. He felt at once conspicuous and invisible. The combination, to his slight alarm, turned him on.

“A medium-short Jewish one.”

He laughed, then kissed Caro harder, bending her back as if they were in a movie. Men hooted behind him. One called, “All right, kid!”

Gabriel’s chest swelled with pride. Caro broke away, scowling. “Asshole.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Him.” She waved her arm in the heckler’s direction. “Not you.”

Tambourines rang through the plaza, and the guitarist, finally, began to sing. The amp garbled his words into nonsense, but slowly the crowd recognized the tune and launched into “La Batea.” Caro tipped her head back and sang the first verse, the one about right-wing barbarity. Her voice, to Gabriel’s delight, was raspy and off -key. An imperfection. He reached for her hand.

Slowly, the demonstration moved forward, lapping wavelike at La Moneda. Caro kept singing, and Gabriel, defying his self-consciousness, joined in. After the march, he decided, he would invite her to Trabajo Voluntario. She could take Andrés’s spot. Maybe her parents would let her skip school; maybe she’d lie to them. She and Gabriel could have their first conspiracy together. It was an oddly romantic thought.

He surveyed the crowd once more for his friends, who had disappeared entirely. Instead, he saw the empanada girl moving against the crowd’s current. Her tray was gone, as was her coat. A wide grease stain darkened the chest of her blue dress to black.

Gabriel’s throat tightened as he watched her approach. Fat pastry flakes clung to her clothing, and yellow-white corn kernels shone, puckered with fat, from her hair. Tears ran down her face. Her nose was bleeding, and above her neckline, her skin flared a scalded red. Those empanadas couldn’t have been out of the fryer more than a couple minutes. She was going to have grease burns for sure.

His first, shameful impulse was to hope Caro wouldn’t notice. Even as the thought formed, Gabriel registered how selfish it was. He stepped into the empanada girl’s path. “Are you all right?”

“Do I look all right?” Her accent was rough, rural. She smelled intensely of oil. Blisters were already rising above her collarbone. “I meant—” He swallowed dust, acutely conscious of Caro at his side. “What happened?”

“I got mugged.” She laughed harshly, showing crooked teeth. “Excuse me. Some comrades redistributed my empanadas to themselves. Also, my jacket and my money.”

“I’m so sorry,” Caro said.

The girl ignored her. She glanced at Gabriel’s left hand, which was moving, as if independently, toward his wallet—which, if he remembered right, contained two hundred escudos. Not even the price of an empanada. A humiliating amount of money to offer. Instead, without giving himself time to consider, he let go of Caro’s fingers and removed his coat.

“Here,” he said. “You must be freezing.”

The empanada girl looked at him with plain hatred. Her burn climbed the right side of her neck, mapping territory not unlike that of Caro’s birthmark. Gabriel wanted, bizarrely, to kiss her, even as she snarled, “Put your clothes on.” Then, before he could apologize, she shouldered her way into the crowd and was gone.


From Short War by Lily Meyer. Used with permission of the publisher, Deep Vellum Publishing. Copyright © 2024 by Lily Meyer.

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