What Goes Around

by Adrianne Aron

Who could have imagined that young Emiliana, a business student in El Salvador, would one day be working as a gym teacher in California, and would decide at age fifty to write her memoirs —in English? Her memoir-writing group meets in a handsome wood-paneled room on the fourth floor of the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco, reached by a spectacular spiral staircase that snakes up the interior of this landmark building. Today, as her fingertips touch the curved banister and her feet make their way up the marble steps, her mind contemplates this week’s writing prompt: “Change.”

How much can change in thirty years’ time! The country you live in, the friends you tell your secrets to, the language your children speak, the kind of work you do…

And the things that don’t change? She was contemplating those, too, as she climbed the steps: the things impervious to change, that don’t expand or contract, that don’t fade or wither; that remain indestructibly faithful to themselves. What about those things? In her head, on a looping filmstrip, certain things reappeared in their exactitude, held in their track by a perverse memory guard. A voice, for instance: an intonation, a spoken phrase; a recurring dream that for thirty years plays and replays a single moment in time, the time the colonel ordered her husband out of the car.

She was walking through the university parking lot, toward Miguel, who was waiting for her in their old Toyota. A man dressed in military uniform stood next to the car and told Miguel to get out. She saw the door open. Miguel got out. Then the colonel pointed a finger at him and barked an order: “YOU: Step this way, I want to show you something.”

Miguel stepped over. The colonel raised his pistol to Miguel’s forehead.

The brains of Emiliana’s beloved husband went shooting through the air like exploded melons. His brains. Like when they killed the Jesuits that same year. The war of the terrorist government was a war against thinking.

Over and over in an endless loop, for thirty years she has been re-living the terror, those exact sounds, that precise moment. Her memoir, this testimonio, would preserve the truth of her immutable point in time, to embed it securely in the historical record, never to be lost in the great wash of change that threatens to rewrite realities.

Atop the well of the spiral staircase is a bright dome that resembles an eyeball. From time to time as Emiliana glances at it during her ascent it seems to be glancing back. On the fourth floor she will look over the banister at the coiled steps that wind up the steep grade from the landing far below. The distance is so great, a pendulum could swing in it while the earth rotates, proving as the saying goes that what goes around comes around.

The pages she wrote for today are about her life in El Salvador. Her fellow memoirists already know she went to college in the States, did some graduate work, got a credential, and started teaching when her daughter was old enough for pre-school. They know that her choice of physical education as a major had to do with a love for the martial arts, and the Chinese-immersion pre-school for Katy had to do with her marriage to Ben, the immigrant from Shanghai she met in an ESL class. School, family, life as a refugee: she’d written about those things. Today her fellow writers would hear for the first time about El Salvador—the fear and the sorrow, her brother’s detention and torture, her mother’s violent death. They would hear about Emiliana’s first eight months of widowhood, spent in hiding after the murder of her husband Miguel. She wrote a whole page describing that indelible filmstrip in her head. “YOU! Step this way…” After thirty years of being unable to talk about it, she was writing her testimonio.  

Clutching the pages torn from her heart, she climbed the spiral staircase, looking up now and then at the dome that lights the interior of the long white cylinder. From the fourth floor she will be able to look straight down into the void, to the inconspicuous piece of marble flooring at street level. She often thinks of how much her dearest Miguel would have loved the drama of that staircase. He was a student of architecture.

Emiliana used the restroom on the fourth-floor landing. When she came out, a stocky man in a leather jacket was chatting in Spanish with a woman on her way in to clean the facilities. Emiliana stepped over to the banister to enjoy her favorite view again, the vertiginous drop to the lobby, four stories straight down–splat. She was close enough now to hear the cleaning woman congratulate the man for his nephew’s award in a chess tournament. “Forget chess,” the man said. “The kid should be playing war games for real. Like me. Military: Atlacatl Battalion. Trained at the School of the Americas.” He laughed. “Been here since ’90.” In English he added: “Special-entry visa.”  

Emiliana froze, too stunned to move. She couldn’t see his face. But she knew the voice. She had been hearing that voice, trembling to it, for thirty years.

She stood at the banister that protected the winding steps from the long, treacherous drop. Such a long drop…  

The cleaning woman was in the restroom now. Only the eye of the dome was watching.

Emiliana the gym teacher took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. She flexed her strong muscles. There were thirty years of tension wound up in those muscles. She braced herself at the rail, glanced down into the void. Her throat felt like she’d swallowed rust. But she was able to speak, she knew exactly what she needed to say.

She pointed a finger at the man. “YOU! Step this way,” she barked, “I want to show you something.”     

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