Short Story The Disappearance of Guy
Guy was released shortly after he was detained. His parents did their best to keep everything quiet. But already the rumors had begun.
Years passed before Guy’s relatives and friends, and the grown children of each, discussed what had happened. Typically, near the ends of dinners. Before dessert. A few times, I was the unintended audience—we are a small city. In one version, the events took place elsewhere, a deviation I could forgive since I imagined that something similar had occurred in every place.
His mother named him Guy because it was a common name in the imperialist country where he was conceived, in a coastal town with vineyards. They’d been on vacation. Pronounced ɡē there and ɡooe here in Guy’s homeland (a former colony, but of a different empire), Guy was partial to gī , a third pronunciation, in a third colonial language, which he’d grown used to hearing at the private school he’d attended since he was a small boy. Guy was the youngest of three children and the only one who still lived at home—a gated structure with a hedgerow perimeter, in a neighborhood of sprawling embassies and luxury apartments, all designed in the second-wave renaissance style of yet another former empire. He was within walking distance of the beach. Much of the capital was.
At the time, the country was clinging unsuccessfully to the unaligned world, not unlike most of the hemisphere. There were unsavory leaders—caricatures one assumes cannot be real until, suddenly, they are clutching the reins, the riding crop, and your daughter’s waist. There was also military overreach. And counterintelligence. And disappearances—many: people who complained, people who organized, people who attended meetings, and the people who stood too close to them. There was torture too. Circling high above was a vulture branded as an eagle, disguised as a condor. When it was over, there were aftershocks. Those who were found and reunited with their families developed high blood pressure prematurely. And cardiovascular diseases. And unexpected cancers. And depression. The people who survived managed to die earlier than if they had never disappeared to begin with. Not unlike most of the hemisphere.
But the after came later. At present, Guy was unaware of anything he couldn’t observe with his own eyes. In that way, he remained a boy. He, a scion born of scions, into families where matriarchs rang little bells to call domestic servants into second-floor dining rooms in order to clear first courses, lived on a plane where it was better not to know everything, where dissemblance wasn’t an incidental buffer but a natural state.
Broad shouldered. Muscular. Pert. The limbs of a long-distance runner. Guy was a serviceable athlete. An exemplary student. A dutiful son. The sort of boy who tugged at his shoelaces until they were even on both sides and who reproached perfect strangers for littering: matter-of-factness born of confidence facilitated by wealth. He was beautiful too.
Guy had survived the gangly, lanky years. He’d survived the locker-room years. The best-friend years. The faraway years were next. At the end of this hemisphere’s winter, he would travel north, to a university that all the men in his family had attended. But first, spring, summer, and autumn would have to elapse.
Attractions once curious, once fleeting, once circumstantial were becoming less so. Guy had found his way to the sliver of town he’d heard of all his life, mentioned in passing and ridiculed with ease. A place where desire stunned fear and shame into submission. The first few nights, his back remained pressed against a cracked, colorless wall, eyes clenched, the world at his feet; on another night, sweaty hands held his face still, as pebbles dented his knees; one time, Guy found himself supine in an alley behind the crumbling theater, then beneath the embankments of stone and sand along the craggy coast.
After each encounter, Guy returned to the familiarity of obedience, order, onanism. For weeks. Then days. Until finally, the regret and shame of morning dissipated, leaving only the nourishment of desire fulfilled. Blaming the whisky was no longer fair to the malted barley. Guy knew well what it meant to wander (skin damp, chest trembling) into the grid of cobblestone and colonial architecture past a certain hour. And so he wandered, meeting eyes with anyone who circled and filed past, hesitating briefly before allowing himself to be followed.
The pre-exposure calculations abounded.
“I’m exhausted,” Guy might say to his friends at the bar or restaurant or backyard pool. Their company proved itself no match for the insect burrowing in Guy’s brain, needling, reminding of what lay in wait.
“But it’s not that late,” they’d respond through the din.
Guy’s departures had to be early enough for none of his friends to be tempted to leave with him and sufficiently late for the hour to corroborate his inauthentic weariness.
“You know me,” he’d answer.
Up to a point, they did. Guy’s friends asked little. And still, he abused caution. On poorly calibrated nights, he waited until everyone had gone home before slinking toward the coast.
It was around then that we met. I was a student of philosophy in my second year at the university. Slightly taller and a couple of years older than Guy, I was also much darker—my color a tincture of colonizer and colonized; his, colonizer and early-century refugee. In those days, I wore a trim mustache and bright short-sleeve shirts. I was wiry of frame but attractive, more so than I am now. Guy was of another category altogether. An irreproachable beauty. One that would have allowed him to ignore me in daylight. I glimpsed him in the cobblestoned maze a few times before I approached.
My third attempt led to our first encounter: a tender entanglement of limbs and youth and sweat that culminated on the sand and briefly erased our differences. We met twice more by chance and ritual, but our unconventional dates then took on a routine nature, beginning near the shuttered flower shop, not far from the plaza where the city’s founder was enshrined on horseback and encircled with palm trees, and ending by the water. As spring faded and the coast warmed, we began strolling instead of wandering—not yet in full light, but out of the shadows.
I worked at the university’s library that summer, and Guy took to waiting for me outside, usually with an orange in hand but sometimes a bag of plums; fruit was less conspicuous than flowers. No matter that he did this every day; his eyes grew wide each time. Mine too.
We’d walk for hours, without a plan or destination, perfectly enthralled with the newness of each other and the serendipity of our meeting, at times careless with our affections. Luck, too, played its part. It seemed that whenever we could not contain our lusts, a large-enough tree or generous penumbra offered its succor.
Our union was improbable. I lived far from the hedgerows, with my mother, my sisters, and what remained of my father, in a place where the facades of buildings threatened to slide off, where lampposts provided no light and the smell of urine and rot overpowered. I understood well what was happening to our country because it had been happening to us always. The authoritarianism of the time enlivened some who’d been unaccustomed to barbarity, but a lifetime of vigilance had left the rest of us attuned and, in a way, unsurprised. Guy, however, lived a few feet off the ground, like a balloon from yesterday’s party. As it concerned stars and antique automobiles, he was brilliant, but his analysis of the modern world was facile, a parrot of others equally ignorant and more powerful.
“Should the government just permit chaos? Answer to mobs?” he asked.
“Chaos? I didn’t know pain could manifest neatly,” I responded, concerned more that my anger be poetic than righteous, yet unaware that it could be both.
“Destruction isn’t going to achieve anything. There are historical examples of peaceful—”
“Do you think our rocks are any match for their guns? Their tanks? For the military aid coming from abroad? You’re worried about windows? Do you know what it is to choose between survival and dignity?”
Guy remained quiet when I grew animated. I wasn’t sure if he was formulating a response or if I had frightened him. At some point, it occurred to me that he was merely listening. “No one in my life talks like this,” he said once, before quickly pressing his soft lips to mine, as if he were stealing something, unaware that I was offering it at no cost.
“No one in my life talks like this,” he said once, before quickly pressing his soft lips to mine, as if he were stealing something, unaware that I was offering it at no cost.
Only in fiction have I witnessed love conquer differences, which is why I cannot explain my infatuation for Guy. Something as simple as his warm hands? Or his decisive, bowlegged gait? Or the way he laughed whenever I rolled my eyes, as if he enjoyed being ridiculed or cut down to size? Or maybe it was the moments of pretending that served as an escape.
“Look, there, that’s Mars. Isn’t it amazing to imagine what could be up there?” he asked, pointing to the faint spot of orange millions of kilometers away, far from the desolate stretch of sand that we had chosen for its distance from the main road, from the man-made lights, and from everyone else.
“It’s amazing because it’s out of reach,” I said. “I’m sure it’s frightening up close.”
“What if we lived there? Or another planet perhaps?”
“I prefer the moon.”
“I’m not kidding. What if you came with me?”
“But I’m here.”
“You can do everything here over there, too, but easier.”
“Or you could stay here.”
“Or you could come with me.”
“Or you could stay.”
I was tempted, at times, to continue this conversation in earnest, but there was no logic to it. It is difficult now, in this era, to explain how impenetrable were our categories. Better, I told myself, was to enjoy the temporary.
Our affair ended the way it began: in the dark, with few witnesses. Guy was spared because it never occurred to him to run when the brutes with thick necks and strict orders approached—the same men who’d idled around campus after meetings and during protests, hammers of the state, humans in shape only. A torrent of fists and boots rained down on my legs, back, ribs, elbows, wrists, and hands, but I recall clearly Guy’s voice, patient and proper at first, like a bell ringing for prayer, then wracked with a quivering electricity. “Stop! This is not right!” he called out, again and again.
From there, I was taken to one dark room. Then another. And another. Guy, I later learned, was released shortly after he was detained. His parents did their best to keep everything quiet. But already the rumors had begun. Guy was forbidden from leaving home. No summer. No strolling. No wandering. He obeyed. Of course.
Amparo, the woman who had changed Guy’s diapers when he was a baby (and made excuses for him when he arrived late), traveled once per week, three hours by bus, from the country’s interior. Every Monday, before the sun rose, she painstakingly plucked out the most conspicuous traces of time from her sable crown. She left her daughter. Her husband. Her sisters. Her mother. And a few cousins. With gratitude and a traditional affection for her patrons, she made her way quietly to the capital.
Her plump forearms vibrated as she polished the spoons and listened to Guy’s pleas. To know if I was alive was all he wanted. She demurred. She who had clipped his nails. And prepared his lunches. And tucked him in. And loved his youth.
“Ask them,” she implored. “They are your parents.”
But when Guy’s eyes disappeared and his head dropped onto the white marble counter, she set aside the silverware.
On Tuesday, she knocked at the back door of the police station where her nephew worked—a boy she loved but a man she couldn’t bring herself to like. He succumbed to her requests and scribbled down the details Guy had given her. “Meet me there in twenty minutes,” he said, pointing to a café with a yellow awning on the corner.
She wasn’t hungry but ordered a toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich. Her nephew, a bulky, asymmetrical man, appeared eventually, carrying a few sheets of paper and a small photograph. “Why are you looking for this troublemaker?” he asked.
She said nothing, hoping her silence would make her pitiful and him generous. He spoke in circles and daggers. He referred to me as dangerous and violent. It was best for her to keep a distance.
When it seemed he’d finished, she said, “We’re talking about a boy.” She recognized the ephemeral ridges along his brow as exasperation and a trace of embarrassment, just like his father.
“I don’t know where he is or if he’s alive!” he responded.
Instead of inquiring further, she, again, chose silence, turning toward the café’s wide windows, where a noon sun lit the street, the benches, the trees, and the scores of people who walked past. They were headed home for lunch, she thought.
On Wednesday, after filling her basket at the fruit stand known for its plums, she went to the basements of three hospitals. At the third, an attendant in a black apron and dark-rimmed glasses eyed the small photograph, first holding the square close to his face, then extending his arm to examine it at a distance.
“I think I have this one,” he said, as if he were dealing in antiques. “He came in last night.”
While she waited for him to return, the morning’s coffee and leftover grapefruit gurgled in her gut. When the attendant reappeared, she clutched the bag of fruit to her chest.
“No. Not him,” he said.
On Thursday, before visiting the butcher, she went to the university and approached the bearded caretaker with the damaged back that left him ever angled toward the ground. “I’ve seen none of them,” he said, before shuffling away.
Afterward, in her narrow room adjacent to an even narrower one where delicate items were hand-washed, she delivered the news. Each time, Guy sank into the same corner of her bed, but something about him was different. His face or his eyes, she later puzzled.
After nineteen days of quarantine and after the salad plates had been cleared, Guy’s parents announced a family trip.
Guy didn’t have to prepare anything. His tireless messenger, who each year baked him a cake of meringue and strawberries for his birthday, packed. She also pressed shirts, mended trousers, and prayed.
Guy was forbidden from leaving home. No summer. No strolling. No wandering. He obeyed. Of course.
The hotel was old in age and by design: elaborate moldings, high arches, beaded-wood trims framing taut leather. Decor redolent of home.
On their second afternoon, they visited a sleepy street lined with handsome townhouses unlike those in his country. Guy’s session began as a series of invasive questions and stilted replies. The psychiatrist spoke of aggressive treatments and of normal states, his droning tenor vanishing briefly between sentences or paragraphs. Guy scanned the maroon bindings on the shelf and the family of wooden mallards lining the windowsill. They were on the third floor.
Guy was silent in the cab. When it came time for dinner, he refused. His parents had made the reservations in advance, on the suggestions of several friends who had recently visited. “That’s fine. We leave early tomorrow for the hospital,” said his mother. Guy kissed them both goodbye, breathing in her searing perfume and his oppressive cologne.
Before drinking half the Scotch in the liquor cabinet, Guy called the woman who had been paid to care for him but who cared for him nonetheless. He recounted, without alarm, all that had occurred that day. Afterward, he stumbled onto the terrace. Below was a snow-dusted street busy with the life of a Friday evening. Guy took a letter from his pocket and set it on a small iron table beneath the eaves before wrapping a scarf around his neck and leaving.
The doorman, who had been attending to guests when Guy walked past, later described him as untroubled and smartly dressed: brown corduroy sport coat, matching pants, the blue scarf.
“The clothes he wore all day,” whispered his mother as she tugged at her husband’s cuff.
“I believe he headed eastward,” said the hoary man clad in crimson with gilded details.
That night, the couple met with their ambassador. The following day, they went to a police station. The search continued discreetly for three months, but after ten days, Guy’s parents went home.
They told Amparo in the kitchen while she patted the flounder dry. She cried, but secretly, felt something akin to solace. “Better lost out there than trapped in here,” she said to her husband before touching the cardinal points of the cross to her forehead, chest, and shoulders.
With time, Amparo grew resentful of the travel to and from the capital; she grew resentful of the distance between past and present. Like many of the women of my mother’s generation and status, Amparo’s loyalties began to wane—and shift. But before it occurred to her to quit, and before she and her husband used two decades’ worth of savings to open a pastry shop, and before that shop became a pizzeria, she found me.
Porfirio, the watchmaker and jeweler to whom Amparo took her patron’s valuables for repair, had also disappeared, along with his son, Gerardo, a classmate of mine. Porfirio’s wife, Claudia, managed the small shop during their year of detention. Claudia told Amparo where we were being held and when we could visit: forty-five kilometers outside of the capital and Thursday mornings. Amparo requested the day off and accompanied Claudia by bus to the prison.
Once there, Gerardo informed them that I had been released weeks prior. The cells couldn’t hold any more of us, and during a brief, uncharacteristic spell of charity, either because the military grew tired of their own sadism or, as the rumor went, because the mass graves were also overflowing, they sent home the most inconsequential of us. Beginning with the most burdensome. We’d all been designated numbers based on our degree of insurrection. I was a two, for having participated but never organized. Sickly ones and twos were released in the first batch—anemia and asthma had sent me to the infirmary at least once per week. Gerardo, a healthy three, went home after completing his year; Porfirio, a five, who had hosted many meetings in the basement of his shop, died in his cell. Of a heart attack, they said.
It was almost noon when Amparo and I met at an outdoor café not far from the wandering. I recall the air was thick. We took turns swatting at a lone fly that eventually tired of our attacks and disappeared. Under the table, I tied thin waxed paper napkins into knots. I didn’t want to be there. I felt something like hatred for everything and everyone, including Guy, who’d done nothing, as far as I could tell, to extract me from my recent hell. Through his family, I suspected he could have.
Amparo sat across the uneven table, unable to look at me directly, at the still-visible scars across my cheek, above my chin, and between my eyes. She peered instead at the crucifix that hung from a delicate silver around her own neck. I, too, had trouble keeping my stare ahead, fearing always a surprise.
“You’re very handsome,” she blurted out after a long silence.
We ordered more coffee but no food. We talked briefly about my studies and her hometown—I’d visited it as a child. When the chatter became silence, she leaned forward and whispered, in great detail, everything she knew about what had happened to Guy. My chest caved slightly, curling my shoulders forward. I had a similar loss of control over my lips, which chose in that moment to turn upward.
“I’m not worried. He’s very smart. He’ll find a way,” she said unconvincingly, as she slid her hand toward mine.
Amparo and I met once more, not long before she decided to leave Guy’s family and go back to her town. I was walking to a restaurant with other teachers from the university; she carried a bag of groceries on one shoulder and a folded newspaper under the other. The moments of terror had passed, along with the bulk of my hatred— Better a cage than a ditch , I repeated to myself in those days. Nonetheless, it was difficult to celebrate the end of something that should have never been. It was difficult to celebrate the end of something that should have never been.
Conditions improved after the tanks rolled away, but the trade-off between dignity and peace was a cornucopia of neoliberalism: amnesties, statutes of limitations, unsolicited advices, conditional loans without a hint of historical context. In the worst moments, I, along with my coworker Gabriela, whose sister had vanished without trace, would make my way to the highest bluff overlooking the sea, which wasn’t of spectacular height but was where I felt almost as tall as the gated embassies and columned homes. This was also a place where birds rested and where Gabriela and I would scatter the congregating flocks with our drunken shouts: ¡Al carajo, imperialistas y fascistas de mierda! ¡Cien veces!
Amparo and I stood out of the path of foot traffic as my colleagues continued ahead. I offered to hold her produce while she recounted her plans to leave and I told her of my new position at the university. She knew nothing more of Guy. No one in his family spoke of what had happened, she said. Not his brother far north. Not his sister across the globe. Never his parents. They deflected inquiries expertly. A few times, they pretended not to hear. Guy hadn’t vanished; he’d never existed.
“If you ask me, they found him, but they prefer he stay there,” Amparo said with a remove that, at first, made me feel as if we were gossiping. But then she became wistful: “He’d be done with university by now.”
Before we parted, she pulled from her purse the letter Guy had left on the terrace of the hotel room. She carried it with her always, she explained. Letter is a generous attribution. It was only four blue words haloed in the elemental purple of ruin, really a declarative sentence without punctuation: “This is not right”
I imagine Guy leaned forward on the parapet of the hotel, hoping for a decisive gust of wind to accomplish what he could not. It never came. But maybe, instead, he slid back onto the terrace, where he remained, his face wet and salty, his arms wrapped firmly around his knees, his unformed thoughts spiraling faster and tighter. Perhaps, when he walked out of the room, the only motivation was to breathe. I hope that the farther Guy got from the hotel, the lighter he felt. And I hope after a few minutes and several blocks, he began to float. Until, finally, he disappeared.