An Animal in Winter
by Annie McGreevy, recommended by Nouvella
AN INTRODUCTION BY DEENA DREWIS
“I don’t know how to do that, but I don’t care. I just want to check out of my life. And I’m not going to show it to anyone, so I’ll do it wrong. Who cares?”
This is how Annie McGreevy, in a recent conversation with the writer Claire Vaye Watkins, described what was in her head as she wrote Ciao, Suerte, her debut novella, which moves between multiple points of view, through several decades, and over the span of two continents. In many ways, I think it was this early recklessness that propelled Ciao, Suerte into what it is: a remarkably intricate and emotional narrative centered around a family detonated by the Dirty War in Argentina during the early 1980s.
The first chapter, which is excerpted here, begins with Beatriz, a woman whose life has been consumed by the search for her only grandchild who may or may not have survived birth in the prison where the mother and father (Beatriz’s son) were held and eventually killed for their part in the resistance. We then slip into the mind of Beatriz’s husband Giancarlo, a meticulous doctor who believes their grandchild to be dead and succumbs to the trauma of his losses, eventually leaving his wife for a cousin in Italy. Meanwhile in Madrid, the lost grandchild, Miguel, is in fact alive, living out his late teenage years alongside his adoptive brother and girlfriend Inés. The novella interweaves each of their narratives with that of Eduardo, the aging lieutenant back in Argentina who brokered Miguel’s illicit adoption to an extremely wealthy couple from Patagonia.
An approach more mindful than I’m doing this wrong surely would have yielded a more stilted narrative: How does a writer bring herself to that precipice, to allow herself to fall so thoroughly into the existence of each starkly different character, moving between them and between time and country without heed for convention, if not with a certain amount of determined abandon?
This is likely the first thing you’ll have read by Annie McGreevy. She is a new writer, full of promise and surprises. Just the other day, as we were on our way back from lunch, she told me about how she recently saw Raekwon (of the Wu-Tang Clan) play a dive bar in Columbus, Ohio, where she teaches writing at Ohio State. Annie was nearly at a loss for words as she recounted the show and how the crowd seemed to know the set almost word for word — “He might be my favorite writer. Like, full stop.”
Annie’s disregard for the predictable, her unassuming fearlessness, has produced a work of startling emotional urgency and empathy, a book that taps into the various manifestations of love that leave you both sustained and gutted. Ciao, Suerte is out September 1.
Founder and Editor, Nouvella
An Animal in Winter
by Annie McGreevy, recommended by Nouvella
Excerpted from Ciao, Suerte
Children on the street in Rosario with Alejandro’s white skin and floppy hair. A pre-adolescent volunteer at the hospital with Sabina’s languid gait; a girl on television, competing in Odol Pregunta, with her posture. Sometimes Beatriz spends hours watching boys play soccer to see if any of them have her son’s wooden legs or if their little faces redden with as much intensity as his did.
Children all over Argentina, it seems, who might be Beatriz’s grandchild. There are hundreds, maybe thousands.
In 1990, she is at the Monumento de la Bandera when she sees a group of schoolchildren playing and a teacher trying to wrangle them into line to return to school. Out of habit, she scans them quickly with her eyes, but none of them remind her of her son or daughter-in-law. Then from behind her she hears Alejandro’s voice as it was when he was a child — throaty, high, full of urgency and mischief.
“Espera!” the voice calls. Wait up!
Beatriz spins around. A girl with dirty blonde hair is yanking her sagging knee socks and jogging to catch up to the group. She has an overconfident smile like the one Alejandro wore on his face until the day he was killed, probably, and the resemblance is so arresting that Beatriz actually reaches out and grabs the girl’s arm.
“What is your name?” she demands. The name won’t do her much good, Beatriz knows — she just wants to hear the girl’s voice again. The girl looks startled, but otherwise unafraid. She eyes Beatriz with an air of conspiracy, as though she likes this old woman’s boldness, and this — the fact that the girl seems begging for danger — is further reason to believe she could be Alejandro and Sabina’s daughter.
She sticks her tongue out at Beatriz. A teacher appears.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the teacher says as she pulls the girl free of Beatriz’s grip.
Beatriz opens her mouth to respond, but the teacher interrupts.
“Go with your sister,” she hisses to the girl. The girl slinks off and falls into line with another nearly identical to her; taller though, with the awkward hips and lumpy sweater of a body already playing a game of give and take with puberty. Impossible that she is Beatriz’s granddaughter then, as Sabina’s pregnancy when she was abducted was her first. And only. Beatriz mumbles an apology to the teacher and walks away.
There were other incidents before the girl at Monumento de la Bandera.
1984: Beatriz reads an article in Clarín in which General Ramón Camps tells the newspaper that he orchestrated thousands of murders and kidnappings. About the appropriation of newborns, he says: Subversive parents raise subversive children. Beatriz’s hands shake as she reads it, rage filling her. A system that she has never respected has killed her son for using his brain. For joining a group. For learning. All things Beatriz had encouraged him to do; things her own father had encouraged her to do. And now here was Camps talking — no, bragging about it on TV and in the newspaper. Alejandro and Sabina never killed anyone. They weren’t criminals. All they’d done was join a group. After reading the article, Beatriz gets into bed and doesn’t get out for over a week except to use the bathroom. The only other time she was still for so long was when she’d had her wisdom teeth removed as a teenager and her father said, Think of it like four separate gunshot wounds inside your mouth. That’s what you’re recovering from. Then he smiled. Time to take a break from talking, he’d teased. This is the same, Beatriz thinks now, thirty-five years later — it’s like bleeding inside my own head. But this will never end.
1985: Beatriz submits a blood sample to the Grandparents’ Index. The Madres y Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo have support from abroad. They have powerful lawyers. Geneticists have taken an interest in their cause. They have found some adopted children of the disappeared and returned them to their biological grandparents. Beatriz is hopeful, and the hope pulses through her veins like a drug.
1986: Beatriz’s husband Giancarlo increases his campaign to try to convince her that their grandchild was never born. The man who never gets angry loses his temper with Beatriz one night after dinner. “You were a nurse!” he booms. “Don’t you know? They tortured her before they killed her. Pregnancy can’t withstand that!”
Beatriz knows he’s trying to spare her more pain. She knows he could certainly be right. But she can feel the slightest whisper of intuition telling her the opposite.
1988: Alejandro and Sabina are officially declared dead. Tell me something I don’t know, Beatriz thinks.
One more low after the incident in the art museum:
1992: Giancarlo leaves Argentina for Italy, something he’s been threatening to do for nearly thirty years. He tells her he’s going one night as they lie in bed. “I can’t stay here anymore,” he says. “I’ll die.”
“We’re dying anyway,” Beatriz says, though they’re not very old and have no real health problems. A cruel trick of nature, she thinks after their annual doctors’ visits. Maybe we’ll live forever. Maybe we’ll outlive the grandchild and its grandchild and the next generation of holocausts.
“Don’t you want to at least stay in our country?” Beatriz thinks that if their neighbors overheard them, they would think the two of them were discussing the weather, so drained of energy are their voices.
“It’s not a country anymore. It’s nothing.”
Beatriz stares at the ceiling. She has been living in this house for almost forty years, since she married Giancarlo. On so many nights, she has watched him sleep soundly beside her while she stayed up fretting: when Alejandro was just a baby, colicky and scrawny and refusing her milk (he had to do things his way even then); when she miscarried their second and third and fourth babies; when Alejandro met Sabina and would disappear with her for weeks at a time, coming back skinnier and skinnier and spouting off Che Guevara and Marxist-Leninist ideology; when the two of them took up with the Montoneros. And tonight, too, her husband is warm beside her, with this decision he clearly made some time ago. He can see a life for himself across the ocean, Beatriz thinks. A life of safety and forgetting. A life in which Alejandro’s picture is not on the mantle, in which he’ll never hear his wife wake up in the night saying his dead son’s name. The beginning of a new life for Giancarlo, and surely the end of something, but of what?
They’d first seen each other at the hospital when Giancarlo was finishing his residency. He’d been doing a round of night shifts in the pediatric ward, and there, too, was Beatriz, a nurse from a fine family. The rumor was that her father had raised his daughters like boys, had allowed them to go to university, taught them to shoot rifles in the country, and had even gotten Beatriz a job at this hospital. She was tall, handsome. Not exactly beautiful. A strange femininity that he couldn’t put his finger on. He got into the habit of watching her study her charts, which she did with as much concentration and consideration as if she were the doctor. She was a conscientious assistant, her movements swift, exact. One day she assisted him when he performed an appendectomy on a teenage girl, and her presence had made him more nervous than the director’s had. But it wasn’t until they ran into each other at the tennis courts one morning that he formally introduced himself. The jacarandas were in bloom, everything smelling of lilac, and fallen purple petals had been swept to the sides of the courts. They’d make a good match, he knew, but as he began courting her, the intensity of his attraction surprised him. She seemed older than she was, like she had made her peace with the complexities of life, and he liked talking to her and listening to her. Best of all, in those first months, there would be times when he would forget what she looked like; he would search and search in his mind, but not be able to put together a face for her, not exactly, so every time she appeared it was like seeing her for the first time, each occasion a new pleasure.
Their engagement had been short and their wedding formal. Soon after, even before they found their rhythm as lovers, Giancarlo began to feel that Beatriz was an extension of his body, like there was something inside of her, just underneath her skin, that he needed every day. He could get it from standing next to her or looking her in the eye, hearing her voice. And her laugh — she laughed so loud when they were alone.
Giancarlo is thinking about that laugh now, how he hasn’t heard it in decades, as they lay silently next to each other. He approaches it intellectually, because that’s how he approaches everything. Sure, she still laughs. It just isn’t like it used to be. When did he hear it last? Maybe when Alejandro was a teenager, comedic in his angst and over-seriousness? Maybe when Ale had met Sabina and joined the group and they would make jokes about it all to mitigate their worries? Giancarlo would like to put his finger on a date, an event, but he can’t. He looks over at Beatriz, but she’s closed her eyes.
They’d gotten pregnant right away, and her pregnancy with Alejandro had gone smoothly. He’d been a cranky baby, but by the time he was two they were ready to try again. Getting pregnant didn’t seem to be their problem. They’d always conceived within two or three months of trying. But when, six weeks into her second pregnancy, Beatriz bled so much she thought she was surely dying, she was devastated. They knew this happened all the time, that it was normal, even, but it still undid her. Giancarlo was there to soothe her. Half of being a good doctor, his mentor had told him, was having an organized mind. He’d arranged for his mother to take Ale (as they were calling him then) and he stayed home with Beatriz for three straight days, doing the cooking, holding her, all the while delivering kind, authoritative reminders that there was nothing wrong with her, that they would try again, that Ale would be a big brother soon enough.
The second time had been similar. Six weeks, the bleeding starting in the middle of the night, Giancarlo calm and Beatriz in pieces. She was twenty-nine and Ale was in school.
But the third one. It was something out of a horror movie. She was five months pregnant and it was at a doctor’s appointment that they realized there was no heartbeat, and that even though her belly was continuing to swell, the child inside her had been dead for days, maybe even weeks. Giancarlo had been devastated, but the humiliation he felt at not noticing the absence of movement when he put his hand to Beatriz’s belly three, four times day, was worse. They’d had to induce labor to extract the fetus, and while Beatriz was under anesthesia, Giancarlo had stayed in the room. He saw the fetus, half the size of a newborn baby, but fully formed, with purple bloated skin. A girl. She wore an expression that was half anguish, half disgust, as though she had fought whatever force that had tried to end her short life and died disappointed he had not done his part, that he had not understood how to save her.
The gynecologist who performed the procedure asked him if he wanted to hold the dead child, and he’d accepted only because he was speechless. The moment he spent with her in his arms was the most alarming of his life. It drove his own mortality into him worse than the death of his father would a decade later, and for months afterwards he directed his life with the intuition of an animal in winter.
It took Beatriz much longer to recover. By then, Ale was a chatterbox, a know-it-all with weak hand-eye coordination, exercise-induced asthma, and a penchant for memorizing things. For Beatriz he would perform the list of all the dinosaurs he knew, for Giancarlo every major city in Italy, all the bones of the body, the periodic table of elements, the names and statistics of every football player from Rosario, from Milan, from Saõ Paolo, and on and on and on. Giancarlo poured his energy into the boy, helping him with his homework, teaching him tennis, developing exercises for him to improve his athleticism and to alleviate his asthma. A year after the miscarriage he knew they would not have another child, and his love for Ale grew wilder. He became overprotective, proud of things that were not achievements. His only heir. The tragedy stripped him of his reason. He was more in love with his son than he had ever been with his wife.
Soon Beatriz was ready to try again, but by then Giancarlo had a plan. He learned her menstruation and tracked it on a calendar he kept in his locker at the hospital. It was simple. He didn’t initiate lovemaking, and gently rejected her advances when it was possible for her to get pregnant.
Soon, Giancarlo was attending conferences in Europe two, three times a year, and Ale had grown into a surly teenager who talked relentlessly about national politics, a topic Giancarlo found distasteful and fit only for dilettantes and armchair intellectuals.
The boy kept changing, growing angrier and less and less like himself. Giancarlo wanted to be mad at him, to be disappointed even, to threaten him. But he never could. He turned into one of those men he used to pity, hopelessly in unrequited love with a careless person. But Giancarlo never gave up hope that all of it — Sabina, dropping out of school, joining the group — was just a phase, and that soon enough he’d grow out of it and into the man Giancarlo wanted him to be.
The problem, Giancarlo thinks now, as he turns off the lamp on his nightstand and turns his back to Beatriz, is this country. With its dictators worse than those his parents had left Italy to escape. It made scrambling fools of even the best men. It turned women like Beatriz into — what did she think she was? A private investigator?
Once you knew the problem, the solution was never far behind, and the exactness of the solution to the problem of Argentina and Beatriz finally relaxes him: Valentina, Italy. A distant cousin of his he’d first made love to at fifteen. A trail of embarrassing divorces and dysfunctional children had unraveled behind her in the fifty years since. He’d gone back to her every now and then out of curiosity or stress or pity. He used to regard her as desperate, even pathetic. But sometime after her final divorce, the same time he retired and found himself staring across the table into Beatriz’s intensity far more often than he cared for, he began to see her as a way out. There was something comforting about her vulnerability, her self-deprecation. A peace to the low stakes of her life. She had been making room for him in her place in Bergamo for the past year, since they began making serious plans for him to leave.
He closes his eyes. Valentina, he says in his head, like a prayer. It will be good; it will be fine. He has come to the end of the line with Beatriz, with Argentina. But now everything must rearrange itself inside his imagination. Now it will be Valentina he lives with, sleeps with, touches every day, sees with her hair wet. And it will be Beatriz who exists only in his mind. It was a painful adjustment to relegate Alejandro to that space. The most difficult thing he ever had to do. But there is no room in his imagination for this mythical grandchild. Now, at the very least, Beatriz’s obsession with finding it will cease to infect the last years of his life. Giancarlo doesn’t want there to be a child — he hasn’t wanted there to be one for years. He just wants to start over.
“I want you to come with me,” Giancarlo says. But he doesn’t turn to face her. The invitation is a gesture. He knows that she’ll never leave Argentina until she finds the child.
And then — unexpectedly, miraculously — she does. It’s 2003. Beatriz is seventy-two years old. She is aging slowly, to her disappointment. She is sitting in her apartment when the phone call comes. It’s Mariela, the head of the Madres y Abuelas. A boy in Patagonia has been tested, and he is a match for Beatriz. They’ve found her grandson.
“Un niño,” Beatriz says. All this time, she’d never been able to guess the child’s sex with any certainty. Imagining a girl, imagining a boy, always felt wrong.
“Un niño?” Mariela’s voice sounds harsh over the phone. “He’s twenty-three years old.”
“I know how old he is,” Beatriz says hastily. “Where is he? When can I see him?”
“Tranquila,” Mariela says. “We have his information, and we’re going to give it to you. But you have to be patient.”
“I’ve been patient for the last two decades. I want to see him.”
“It’s complicated. He didn’t consent to being tested — he didn’t even know he was being tested for anything besides steroids — and his parents have no idea. He’s an amateur athlete.” Mariela sighs from her desk in Buenos Aires and Beatriz presses her.
“What? How did you find out then? How can you be sure?”
“An Abuela working here at headquarters was sure a boy on the National Polo team was hers. She was wrong. But the entire team’s samples were tested and run against the Grandparents’ Index. That’s how.”
Beatriz can’t catch her breath. She stops pacing around her apartment and sits down at the dining room table. “What does this mean? Can I meet him?”
“I can’t tell you any more over the phone. Can you come to Buenos Aires?”
A few hours later, Beatriz is in Mariela’s office, a bag packed. She plans to leave Buenos Aires for wherever the boy — man, she corrects herself — is.
What they did was illegal, Mariela begins. They had to pay their way out of it. Luckily, the assistant coach, whom the Abuela had bribed in the first place, was able to be bribed again, this time for Beatriz’s sake. The organization was, of course, committed to the justice of reuniting grandparents with their biological grandchildren. But if Beatriz wanted to show her gratitude, a donation would certainly be appreciated.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Annie McGreevy.