By Carolyne Wright
On my last day in Chile, I was almost raped.
The daily demonstrations (one day for, the next day against President Salvador Allende) were ranging through the streets, and Santiago’s entire downtown area, including the access road to the airport, was barricaded off. But before I could make my way to the airport for the afternoon flight, I had to collect my departure documents from the airline office downtown. The salvoconducto, the all-important safe-conduct pass and exit visa issued by the Chilean government, was valid for only twenty-hours. Government policy therefore was to return the traveler’s passport with salvoconducto to the airlines the day before, or even on the same day as the flight–often a mere few hours in advance of departure. So it was a matter of very close timing.
I had awakened before daylight, nervous, trembling a little as I drank the steaming café con leche that Ana the maid brought me at dawn. The white-glazed earthenware mug rattled on its terracotta saucer as Ana handed it to me, as if we were experiencing a temblor, one of the many earth-tremors to which this earthquake-prone shelf of land called Chile was subject. Beside the mug on the saucer, the thick slice of white bread that was my breakfast was soggy with spattered hot milk and flecks of powdered Sí Café, a domestic knock-off of Nescafé that was the only coffee still available in the ration stores. After Ana left, I threw open the wooden shutters of my bedroom window to release fumes from the kerosene heater, fumes that made me lightheaded every night. I shivered in the sudden chill. The air outside was thick with winter smog and the acrid traces of tear gas from the demonstration already moving along Providencia Avenue a block away. I could hear shouts and chanting of the marchers: “Venceremos!” and “Viva la Unidad Popular!” The slogans they recited told me that these marchers formed a pro-Allende demonstration. Fear nibbled in my belly—would I make it to the airport, would I actually be able to escape from this country?
I spent an hour that morning crouched beside the ancient black telephone on its battered table in the Salas’s shabby front room, calling the U. S. Embassy and the Braniff Airways office to find out if the airport was open. Surprisingly, it was, but the Braniff office–the weary-sounding woman who answered the phone informed me–was going to close at noon because of the chaos downtown, and the airline could not be responsible for passengers’ arrangements.
“Listen for yourself, they’re going crazy down here,” she said. Even over the static-ravaged phone line, I could hear shouts and whistles, the hubbub of voices and muffled gunfire in the street outside her office. “With the political situation in Chile these days, entiende usted, señorita?, this is lamentable, lo siento mucho, but . . . ”
“But I have to collect my passport and exit visa from your office,” I told her. “I can’t leave the country without them.”
“Yes,” the woman sighed, “I know.” She asked me to hold please. As I cradled the heavy receiver on one shoulder, I fiddled with the zippered side compartment of one of my two suitcases, which I had hauled downstairs and parked beside the telephone table.
“Señorita,” the Braniff woman said when she returned a moment later. “Please come to the office before two o’clock. Someone will stay here until then to give you your documents.”
“Mil gracias,” I practically gushed at her, in a momentary spate of relief. I hung up and began to call taxi companies, begging them to send a cab for me—my plane would fly out of Pudahuel Airport at 3:35 p.m.
Everyone refused, saying, “It’s too dangerous, señorita, there’s too much trouble downtown.” Or, “No taxis are running, no spare parts, we can’t repair them.” The more candid dispatchers said, “I’m sorry, señorita, the few taxis we have are reserved all day. They’re taking people around to the demonstrations!”
What could I do? Finally, in that hell-bent calm that came over me when I was closest to desperation, I walked out to the bus stop on Providencia—the early-morning marchers had moved on toward the Plaza Italia. After about half an hour of waiting and trying to flag down one of the few passing vehicles, I succeeded in procuring a taxi, a battered tan Citröen with one mismatched olive-green door. I directed the chofer to the house, where we brought out my suitcases and I gave hasty farewell handshakes to Ana, to Custodia the ancient peasant woman who did the cooking, and to Pancho, my landlady Chepa Salas’s wan-faced ten-year-old son. We loaded my bags and careened off toward the city center through streets nearly empty of traffic, dodging groups of demonstrators carrying flags and protest banners, uniformed school children, and office workers trudging toward their jobs. Jammed between suitcases in the back seat, I sat clutching the broken armrest on the door, hunkering down as far as I could.
I told the driver the Braniff office address, but he replied that he could take me only to the edge of downtown. The entire area was sealed off because of the desfiles, the marching groups of demonstrators, he said, and he didn’t dare risk any trouble. “It’s dangerous out here these days, me entiende, señorita?” He turned around almost completely in his seat to address me, while simultaneously swerving to avoid potholes. A small man with indigenous features and black hair greased back behind his ears, he told me that if the pacos, the police, caught him like this without a license, they would take the car away and maybe even throw him in jail. “But what can the working man do?” he said, his voice rising at the end of his sentence in the rural manner. “Nothing! Not with a wife and four kids, and another one on the way.” He lifted one hand from the wheel and jabbed the air in frustration. “And with the government going all to . . .”
He slammed on the brakes and swerved. A delivery cart pulled by a mangy-looking donkey had started to cross the road in front of the Citröen. The taxi just missed the donkey, who shied and reared a little and practically upset the cart. I was thrown forward against one of the suitcases.
“Perdón, señorita,” the taxi driver apologized. He glanced back to see how I was.
“I’m all right,” I said. I wanted to ask, Didn’t you vote for Allende? Didn’t the working people all support Popular Unity? But by then we were speeding down another nearly deserted street, past shops with their rejas, their metal rolling shutters lowered, concrete walls covered with slogans painted in blue, red, and white: Patria y Libertad—Fatherland and Freedom—followed by a large black swastika edged with blue. Or MIR y Tupamaros: Hermanos en la Lucha—Brothers in Struggle—with drawings of workers marching under a banner emblazoned with a red hammer and sickle. Above the tinny roar of the Citröen engine, I could hear muffled shouts and chanting, sirens and police whistles, from streets inside the barricaded central area. The driver maneuvered between stalled microbuses and pulled to a halt at the corner of the Alameda and MacIver, where big oil drums were set up across the roadway.
I was nervous about entrusting my luggage to this stranger—who might be honest, but who also could have driven off and disappeared with everything of mine, never to return. But I had no traveling companion to watch my bags, no way to haul them through the narrow, demonstration-choked streets to the Braniff office, no other alternative than to leave them with this man who had at least one incentive not to steal them: the fare I would pay once we reached the airport.
“Please wait for me here,” I told the driver, reaching for the inside door handle. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“It’s not possible,” he said, raising his voice over the noise from within the blockaded streets. “No one’s permitted to linger here.”
“All right, can you go over to Santa Lucía?” I named Subercaseaux, the winding street at the base of the Santa Lucía hill, a few blocks beyond the main downtown grid of streets. “I’ll meet you there,” I said. He nodded, I slammed the taxi door, and he roared off.
I stepped between the oil drums and hurried down MacIver, past groups of demonstrators and police. A large desfile was crossing ahead of me on Moneda. I covered my nose with a handkerchief against tear gas fumes and made a dash through an opening in the procession. Continuing on MacIver, through the dust-dimmed air I recognized the next cross street as Huérfanos, turned onto it, and ran down it a few blocks till I reached the airline office.
It was closed, the metal-grate reja lowered, the interior dark. I pounded on the lowered screen, and thrust my Chilean ID card through the grille. After a minute or two, a small man in a security guard’s uniform emerged from the darkness, unbolted the glass front door, glanced briefly at my carnet, then handed me my passport. I looked through it: folded inside was the precious salvoconducto pass—a slip of paper covered with signatures, revenue stamps, and frankings like postal cancellations—which permitted me to leave the country that day. I thanked the guard, stuffed the documents into my wallet-belt, and dashed back down the street the way I had come.
Ahead of me, another desfile was crossing MacIver at an angle, young dark-haired men in day laborer’s rough clothing thrusting their posters into the air and shouting “Fuera! Fuera! Yanqui Go Home!” Mounted police with riot helmets and face shields—like the ones I remembered seeing on TV a few years before, during the Days of Rage, as Chicago police moved against young demonstrators at the Democratic Convention—were spurring their horses into the crowd, swinging their batons and forcing the marchers to fall back. I pressed myself against the wall, not daring to dash through the crowd as I had before. In the smoky air and pandemonium of shouting and police whistles, snorting of the horses and thud of batons on the backs and upraised arms of demonstrators, I was disoriented and about to panic: which way was Santa Lucía, where was the waiting taxi? Through the archway of a baroque-style building, I noticed a short cobblestone passageway at the end of which were a few trees and shrubs in a courtyard, the restful green of foliage and a promise of quiet. I slipped into the shadow of the archway, avoiding a small group of street vendors crouched against the wall, to wipe the tears and dust from my eyes and get my bearings.
I started—I wasn’t alone. The blind man stood in the shadow just inside the archway: black glasses, white cane, tin cup. He wore a baggy coat, muffler, and knit cap; his hands in gloves with the tips of the fingers cut away rested one on top of the other on the head of his cane, index finger of the upper hand curled in the handle of the tin cup. I realized that I had seen him many times on my trips downtown, in front of the marble façade of the Rivadavia Building, just next door.
The blind man had first come to my attention a few months before, as I entered the gloomy lobby of the Rivadavia Building to visit some office. I had waited in vain for the elevator, until the watchman in his threadbare gray uniform emerged from a small doorway and told me that I would have to walk up the dusty, unlit staircase because the elevator had broken down and could not now be fixed because of the shortage of spare parts. The blind man had stood there, to one side of the building’s double doors, swaying slightly as if moving to his own internal music. He was always posted in the same place, like a self-appointed sentry: facing straight ahead, chin tilted as if he were trying to listen above the roar of traffic. On ordinary days, transistor radio salsa tunes poured out of the open doors of nearby cantinas, and women laughed, standing with their string shopping bags in the long line outside the dilapidated grocetería a few doors down.
Next to the blind man squatted the one-armed vendor of combs and pocket mirrors, his wares spread out in fan shapes on top of a plywood crate with words stamped on it: Industria Vinícola and This Side Up. Next to the comb-vendor sat a stout Mapuche woman with a flowered head scarf tied over her salt-and-pepper braids, her black woolen shawl pinned together over her bosom with a figured silver clasp. On a square of plastic tarp, she displayed leather coasters and change purses with the words Santiago de Chile burned in. Beyond the Mapuche woman, on the corner, a group of adolescent shoeshine boys lounged and smoked and told off-color jokes. Sometimes a couple of gypsy women swayed past, wearing big silver hoop earrings, silver bangles that jangled on their wrists, and flimsy sateen dresses in tropical pinks and oranges, with flounces and layers of lace trim on the full skirts. These were the same women I had seen once in Café do Brasil, crowding against the counter, waving their hands and shouting above the grind of espresso machines. The gypsy women jostled the taciturn Chilean office workers in gray suit jackets or tailored woolen dresses, who put hands over their wallet pockets or handbags to prevent their valuables being lifted.
On my trips downtown, if I happened to walk by his spot, I dropped a few coins into the blind man’s cup, saying, “Here you are,” or “Something for you, señor.” He never said anything, but lowered his chin a little, not quite a nod, as if to acknowledge my gift. The shoeshine boys stopped their horsing around and turned in a group to watch me, whistling sometimes and murmuring obscenities in Spanish as I crossed the street so as not to pass near them on their corner.
“Oh shut up, creeps,” I had snapped at them once, in my best imitation of Chilean working-class dialect. The boys’ leers had faded for a moment; they snickered self-consciously and glanced at each other, avoiding my eyes and covering their mouths with their hands to conceal their laughter.
Now, even in the chaos of the demonstrations, the nearby shops closed and shuttered, the street vendors and shoeshine boys are still at their posts against the front of the Rivadavia Building. Just the blind man and I stand inside the arch, about ten feet apart, in shadow. I feel uneasy—I’m not sure, with all the shouting and blaring of horns, shrill of police whistles from the desfiles, that he has heard me approach. I clear my throat and move toward the inviting green of the courtyard. It would be nice to stand among trees for a moment, before venturing into the street again.
Something is wrong—a small movement from the shadows and I glance back at the blind man. He has removed his dark glasses and stares at me with an amused look. His eyes gleam, tawny agates in the dim light, too bright for his pock-marked, sun-darkened face. He sucks air through his teeth and whistles a few bars of salsa. I glance away, afraid I’ve gazed back at him too long.
“Chucha mía,” he mutters, “déjame tomalte una ve’.” The no-longer blind man steps between me and the archway to the street. A ripple of fear trickles over my heart, I move down the passageway, hoping that he’ll stay where he is; but as I turn, he makes a quick movement across the passageway and grabs the back of my collar. My legs give way beneath me, I go very calm and allow myself to collapse at the man’s feet.
This sort of collapse had been my instinctive reaction once, a few years before when I was a student at Seattle University. Walking home from the university library one evening, I had surprised a strange young man trying to break into the house next door. He slid off the front porch, grabbed me by my jacket collar, and put a huge revolver to my head, muttering “Get up, come to the backyard with me, I wanna talk to you.”
I had dropped at his feet onto the nearest bit of parking-strip grass, cross-legged, very calm, telling him I had nothing with me, he could shoot me if he wanted but I had nothing to steal and I wasn’t going into the backyard with him.
Even as I muttered these words, I could hardly believe they were coming from my mouth: Shoot me if you want but I have nothing you could take and I won’t go into the backyard with you. Where had such bravado come from? Bravado? It was entirely instinctual—I simply had heard these words emerge from within myself as if from someone else: from a primordial, pre-verbal woman whose thoughts took the form of words without her agency at all, whose only emotion was a primitive urgency, a will to go on living.
A moment later, a squad car pulled around the corner, and the young man dashed down the driveway and disappeared into the city park that bordered the backyards of that row of houses. Only later, after the police took me down to their headquarters to pore through books and books of adolescent mug shots until I identified my attacker, did I learn that the revolver was probably not loaded. The kid carried it for show, the officers said, to scare his victims; the police had no record of his having fired it. It was only after hearing this information that I began to tremble and moan quietly in front of the officers, who tactfully looked away. Only then, hours after the fact, could I allow myself to experience the immediacy of my own fear.
But the blind man pulls me up and shoves me against the brick wall of the passageway. “Gringa mía,” he croons. His pock-marked face and greasy beard are close to my ear, I can smell his breath, stale with cigarettes and decay as his mouth with bad teeth opens to fasten on mine.
“No!” I start to shout, but his mouth clamps on mine, his tongue pushing against my clenched teeth. I moan, a throttled yell really, and try to twist my body away, but he pushes one leg between mine and pins me to the brick. His hands grapple with mine until he forces my hands together and grips both of them with one hand against the rough wall. Oh my god I can’t breathe, his rancid mouth and tongue are choking me, I try to move my head from side to side but I’m afraid he’ll shatter my glasses, the glass go into my eyes in the struggle. I’ve got to get away, got to breathe, his other hand is under my jacket, my blouse, fumbling with my bra; he gropes my breasts, pinches my nipples, his cock is big against me. His hand moves down, yanks my trousers below my hips, why did I wear pants with an elastic waistband, I hear him unzip his own trousers, his knee pushing my legs farther apart, I’m starting to lose my balance, to slide down the wall, how will I get away, his hand gropes between my legs, he glances down to guide himself between my legs and his mouth detaches itself from mine.
A high, wordless cry erupts from within me, whether or not I actually make any sound I don’t know, because just then footsteps clatter on cobblestones and a few demonstrators dash under the arch at the entrance to the passageway. Shouts rise, they run toward us—or are they still running away from something in the streets, have they even noticed us? For a moment I’m terrified they’ll join my attacker, but they seem to be shouting threats and instructions. The blind man’s grip loosens, I shove at him and break away, jerking up my trousers and stumbling toward the archway. As I run past the group of demonstrators, who have stopped and are peering in my direction, I can feel startled curiosity, sexually-charged interest emanating from the men: one of them sucks back air through his teeth, another whistles—do they realize they’ve inadvertently saved me? I don’t care if they are just as nasty, just as predatory as the false blind man; their arrival on the scene has saved me, and with a rush of adrenaline I practically soar through the archway out into the street.
The one-armed comb-and-mirror vendor is at his post beside the arch; as I pass him he whistles between his teeth, mutters pucha (“Damn” or “Gosh”) or have I heard the obscenities chucha or puta? I don’t stop to wonder—I watch my hand, as if in slow motion, reach out and sweep his combs and pocket mirrors onto the sidewalk, the man leap back and then fall upon his scattered goods; as I glance back, he is on his knees, brushing the items into a pile in front of him before street children can snatch them away. Bastard! I shout in English as I dash away.
Now I can see the Santa Lucía hill to my left and speed up my flight between the buildings, past clots of marchers, toward Subercaseaux Street. A jab of fear: What about my wallet, my documents? I touch my mid-section–with a surge of elation I feel the wallet is there, in its belt-pack. I haven’t lost anything. The blind man was so intent on having me that he didn’t think to rob me first. But if those demonstrators hadn’t appeared—don’t think about that! I was almost subjected to the horror thousands of Chilean women would suffer the following year as the military coup ravaged their country. Instead, I am almost safe, fleeing down this street with its soot-gray, colonial baroque buildings, its gutters clogged with trash in the wake of demonstrations—soaring in a time capsule of my own fear and elation, toward the taxi I glimpse at the corner. Crowds in the next street over begin chanting Muerte a Allende! Death to Allende! Down with Popular Unity!
I run toward the waiting taxi.
Copyright 2020 Wright