By: Norah Valderrama
Art by: Raegan Boettcher
Autumn of ’76,
Huamanga, Province of Ayacucho, Perú.
Isabel Valdivia Guerra is a young, wide-eyed, middle-class student at the University of Huamanga, in Ayacucho. As a leading member of the Revolutionary Student Front (FER — Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario), she has big dreams of social change and revolution. Marco Antonio Gonzáles del Río, the son of a feudal landowner, has also been involved in FER with her for years. This association brings about a wide range of serious conflicts between his conservative family, his professional aspirations, and himself. In the context of the reconstitution and emergence of the Communist Party of Peru, which is preparing to launch its revolutionary war, Isabel and Marco walk the line between passion-fueled love, youthful angst, and the growing, inescapable spiral of political violence that would come to transform life in Ayacucho in the coming decades.
For months, Isabel has tried to confront Marco about his carefree child-like attitude, his lack of commitment to their relationship, and his newly dismissive attitude toward Isabel’s work. Seeing failed attempt after failed attempt, Isabel’s friend, Amelia, leader of the FER in Ayacucho, advises her to abandon her previously gentle approach for a harshly critical, confrontational one.
In the midst of this charged, tense atmosphere, FER’s leadership holds a closed meeting to discuss a new directive from the Communist Party’s Central Committee: "Crush and Expel all Rightism, Liquidationism, and Revisionism in Service of Reconstitution!" Marco, uninvited and unannounced, enters the room and speaks in favor of breaking with the Central Committee. Isabel, along with the majority, vote to move forward with expulsion at the next regional meeting, ordering all who sided with the opposition to self-criticize. With this, choking back her anger and fear, she gathers the courage to finally speak:
Isabel took in the familiar, savory bitterness of the smoke she had come to like so much. Marco, fiddling with his cigarette in his hands, followed suit. The two had exchanged no words since the session was adjourned earlier that day. They sat a few feet apart, a self-induced force repelling their bodies from making contact. The anxious coldness of the rectangular concrete structure upon which they sat traveled from the palms of their hands to the marrow of their spines. The walls and columns of the Humanities Faculty, exploding with cluttered, frantically-drawn political slogans, softly mirrored the blue and orange hues of the Andean afternoon. A single bird chirped in the distance, carving lonely melodies into the air.
“You were quite the speaker back there,” said Marco, breaking the silence. A third cigarette, already halfway burnt, cast flickers against the gravel-colored floor. Isabel glanced at him, nodding.
“I was only doing my job. And — Amelia, Clotilde, Franco, and the others did most of it anyway —”
“Don’t undercut yourself like that,” Marco interrupted. “You know you’re the soul of the faction. They’d be lost without you.”
“Since when are you on our side? What gives?” Isabel replied in cynical jest.
“I don’t need to agree with you on everything to know that I love you, cholita.”
Isabel looked into his deep-green eyes. She turned to her cigarette, sighing before taking another puff.
“A communist works selflessly and never seeks personal advantage in anything. In the Party, we work as one,” she said. Marco smiled — the same, smug, goddamn smile that had always made her heart swing between the depths of hatred and delirious love like a run-away spinning top. “Why do you never take me seriously?”
“Oh, come on, babe. You know I do,” Marco replied. “You just have an interesting style, is all.”
“One day you’re with us, the next day you critique us and side with the Puka Llacta, or the Hoxhaites, and even Patria Roja. You say you’re so committed to Communism you’d want to die for your ideas, you say that you love me for how I love the Party. But I rarely see you at the meetings. I rarely see you leading any protests or helping us organize them. You only come to voice disagreements, join in with the opposition, and tell us how to do our job, like your only allegiance is to whatever the most palatable, least disruptive position is at the moment.”
Isabel turned away from Marco, taking another long, aching drag from her melancholic cigarette. “It's like — you stand for nothing.”
A question — brewed and tempered in her mind since the very first moment his name acquired a meaning — burst upon the surface:
“You confuse me — Maybe even more than I confuse myself. Why can’t you just be honest and clear with me? Why can’t you just take one thing seriously for once in your life?”
Marco gave a brittle sigh, turning away from her.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand what I feel most of the time, if I’m being honest. I’m confused as well, Isa, but I do know I like this . . . And that I like you. Don’t you think that’s enough?”
“If that’s true, then commit. To me. And to the Party. And the Revolution. Because that is what I am. You will never have me unwhole.”
“You know that isn’t true. You’re more than the Party, Isabel —”
“I am assuming important roles and positions. Soon you will have to make a choice too. Everyone will have to.”
“You just want me to be another obedient yes-man to you and your friends. Better get a dog if that’s what you want, because babe, it’s just not me and it never will be,” he said, profound frustration coloring his inflection. “You think you’re an enlightened messenger for the Red Messiah and the rest of us are the blind who must be made to see.”
“No, Marco — the problem is that you’re a coward. You talk big about dying for the revolution, but we both know that was never in the cards for you. You love your comfort and luxury,” Isabel spat. “My bad! How could I ever forget that the most important thing to Marco Antonio González is Marco Antonio González?”
Isabel stopped, looking out into the mountains which towered over distant buildings. His hand was touching a single atom of hers, both still pressed against the concrete.
“There is only one way, Marco,” she continued. “And soon, when the People’s War begins, you will be either with us or against us. That’s your choice.”
“I can repeat Party slogans too,” he blurted. Isabel felt her face go cold. With that, she rapidly stood up and rushed toward the exit. Tears began to pool beneath her eyes, black eyeliner melting on the side of her cheeks. The click-clack of her ballerinas left a ghostly echo suspended in the hallway, intermittently giving way to silence like the back and forth of a metronome. Marco remained seated, finishing his fourth and final cigarette as thoughts began to circle in his mind.
Ten minutes had passed since the argument. Outside, in Sucre Square, the sun was descending toward her resting place, far behind the mountains and pampas. Isabel sat on a bench facing the Cathedral, each intricate baroque ornament on its decaying, discolored façade weaving together through her stare of muted resentment. The moribund streaks of red paint surrounding the gates, centuries past fading by the day, bore the battle wounds from scourging estival deluges.
From the corner of her eye, a man approached. He wandered toward the bench, letting his body fall backward into its dusty, ancient build. Isabel kept her vision forward, clutching the icy sheets with which she tried to blanket up her burning heart.
Marco opened up his bag, taking out a half-eaten homemade chicken sandwich. He extended it toward her, raising his eyebrows with nervous expectation, his smugness washed away by a rare, apparent sincerity. Isabel felt an instinctual smile creep upon her face, the newly born winter within her crumbling once more to a hauntingly familiar, cursed warmth. The snow which swathed the mountains of her torment quickly melted into dirty, muddy rivers and dragged away her use of reason.
“Thank you,” she said, taking the sandwich from his hands.
By the entrance of a nearby store, a man belted a popular creole waltz, his fingers dancing on a half-broken, slightly out-of-tune guitar. As they listened to the drunken melodies which filled the Ayacuchean evening, Isabel rested her head on Marco’s shoulder.
“¡Me duele el corazón con tal violencia,
Que arrancarlo de mi pecho yo quisiera!
Y llevarlo de la mano a tu presencia,
Y oprimirlo, fuertemente, hasta que muera…
Patrón, patrón, sirva usted más caña,
¡Se me ha atracado un huesito en la garganta!
Hace tiempo que vivo yo borracho,
Vaya al diablo, el perrito y la calandria…”
“Who do you think are the puppy and the mockingbird?” Isabel asked, her amber eyes once more denoting the sweet innocence of their younger days.
“I don’t know, baby. I've always wondered that as well,” he said, chuckling.
A symphony of birds soon enveloped their yearning ears, the thunderous storms within giving way to a sunny, resplendent afternoon.
“Can I ask you something, Marco?”
“Of course, baby.”
“What made you join the FRES? Back in Secondary?”
“Hm. Why do you ask?”
“I guess — I just never did ask you. But I’ve always wondered what compelled you to. You were the last person I would have imagined joining. You were so arrogant, so full of yourself . . . The epitome of a rich asshole.”
Marco laughed, putting his hand around her waist.
“Don't you remember when we went on field trips back then? I’m sure you must remember the first one we did, in our first year of Secondary, when we went to Cusibamba. We were assigned to work together.”
“Ha. How could I forget? I hated you back then!” Isabel giggled. “I begged our teacher to switch, but he wouldn’t let me. He said I had to be ‘more principled, and gracefully accept the task I had been given, like a proper revolutionary.’”
“Right. You ignored me for the first few hours of the program, and then broke your silence to call me a ‘deeply unserious, intellectually vapid mommy’s little boy,’” said Marco. Isabel cackled, trying her best to not choke on the sandwich.
“That was the first time I did anything like that. You know, with the peasants, directly. I will never forget how happy it made me, to feel like I was actually making a difference. Especially when we went on lunch break, and the woman we had been helping carry sacks of maize all morning offered us something to eat. She had absolutely nothing, and yet, no matter how much we told her she didn’t need to, she insisted that we eat from the little pot of soup she had cooked. You remember it, yeah?”
“Of course I do. But, I didn’t know your first time actually talking with a peasant gave you such a moral turnaround,” she joked, overlooking as a subtle fluster took over his demeanor.
“ — That day, I consciously realized I couldn’t live without doing something to fix the inequality and misery which surrounds us. But, even as a kid, I think I’ve just always seen things this way.”
“Most people of your class don’t think this way, Marco.”
Marco turned to her, breaking out a shy smile. “That day, I knew I had an obligation to continue to do things like that. So, I began to read those pamphlets the FRES would always pass out at the school exit, once classes were over. You, personally, gave me a few — if I remember correctly.”
“Mostly to spite you. I didn’t think it would actually have an impact.”
“Well, it did. I sought out more Marxist literature at the University library, I went to some meetings with the Front for the Defense, the peasant union, even the FER. And that’s how I came to join FRES.”
“And — it was also then that I fell in love with you.”
Isabel felt her cheeks fill with rapture, an oddly melancholic joy blending in with her nostalgia.
“I actually remember the day it happened. It was during one of the field trips — a later one, when our school was becoming more ideological. Dr. Díaz Martinez and a few other Party leaders came with us. You were designated as a trip leader, and you were in charge of giving the opening speech and ensuring ideological direction amongst students.”
Isabel reminisced. “Right, I remember too. I was actually quite nervous — I stayed up all night perfecting that speech.”
“See, I was standing beneath the platform with the rest of the students and the villagers, watching you speak. I remember your initiative to cover the Peruvian flag with a Communist flag, and how you looked talking in front of it, waving your fist, citing from Marx, Lenin, Mao. Your hair waving in the wind, sunlight running through your skin. Talking about how everything will be different one day. And — that was the moment.”
“So . . . You fell in love with me because I looked pretty in front of a flag.”
“What? No!” Marco said, laughing. “I fell in love with you because I’d never met anyone who was as committed and convinced about the need for a different future as I was.”
Isabel let out a sigh of bittersweetness, their hands interlocking. “You must not have met many Communists.” She lay upon his lap watching the Cathedral, clouds adorning the deep-purple sky like oil brushstrokes on canvas, freshly dried by the cold wind descending from the pampas.
“Beauty is common, but a soul and brain like yours; it is once in a generation, Isabel.”
They had been walking for over an hour and a half, their feet starting to ache with intensity. Huamanga lay beneath them, her orange-yellow lights glimmering against the obscured mountainsides. A few small clouds rolled across dusk, distant stars peeking from between their cotton-like texture. As they danced up to the summit, the ancient dryness of the Andean pampa welcomed their presence, yellow grasslands and the scent of blooming eucalypti guiding them through the unmarked dirt path.
“Do you really love me, Marco?”
“Yes. Of course I do.”
Darkness was falling. Another spark lit the quiet scenery, the scent of burnt tobacco muting any restlessness left in Isabel.
The rest of the climb was silent, save for their increasingly laborious breath, the thinning air exhausting their youthful energies. Within ten minutes, they reached a small, flat area free of cacti or falling rocks, where all that existed for miles was the distant city, the sky, and each other. It was a place as ingrained in their minds as the weeping sorrows of an Ayacuchean huayno, her airs and earth well acquainted with the bareness of their naked skin.
As they both sat on a patch of grass, Marco took out yet another cigarette. This time, Isabel lit it for him. Marco stood transfixed at her; wuthering winds caressing the softness of her face, classical beauty given life by the shining in her pupils, fiery orange reflected under deep-blue moonlight.
“Sometimes I feel like you’re toying with me,” she said, her gaze shifting toward Huamanga’s surreal, flickering glow.
“ . . . Why?”
“Marco. You’ve always toyed with everyone. What makes me different?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t ‘toy’ with people, Isabel.”
“Yes you do. Even now that we have — this — going, you just can’t stop yourself from flirting with girls, from sweet-talking them. And, you still can’t fully commit to me. You say you love me, but I wonder if our concepts of love are even the same.”
“Isabel, you are more judgemental than you realize. I don’t like the idea you have of me.”
Marco sighed, taking another drag.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just so — I know I should be happy. This relationship is all I’ve wanted for years. I know I should be thankful, and joyful, and glad — and instead, I’m anxious, and I’m scared.”
Marco brought Isabel’s head close to his shoulder, running his cold hands through each wave of her rich, dark hair.
“What do you mean, wawita?”
Once more, silent hesitation.
Then — an answer:
“Remember when you came over to my place, maybe a few months ago, and we listened to Tristan und Isolde on my father’s record player?”
“Yes. Of course I do.”
“Right. So, that is what I mean. Loving you is an unsolvable, unending dilemma.”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“There is no resolution, and there never can be resolution. That is why the music never resolves. Think of the prelude: it opens with the mourning, quiet weeps of a heartbroken violoncello, giving way to such strange, brittle chords, softly disappearing into nothingness. It climbs up chromatically, begging for an answer, and just when it seems like there will be a tonal center established, a chord to call ‘home,’ there is none. It grows in volume, passion translated into loudness, ’til it reaches the same point, over and over again: the same two chords, sharing a beautiful melancholy, yet never finding a conclusion.”
“Okay, but — Aren’t we talking about us? What are you trying to say, Isabel?”
“I love you; and being with you is the most wonderful gift I have been given. Yet that joy is double-edged. That’s what I’m trying to say. Even when things are going well — even when we make love, when we work together, when we create — you inspire painful irresolution in me. My soul remains in hunger, and every piece of bread I feed her only starves her further. You ruin me . . .”
Isabel wiped off a nascent tear with her sleeves, her eyes anxiously focused on finding patterns in the growing grass beneath her. Suddenly, she felt a violent surge of SHAME — RESENTMENT — SORROW — ANGER — FURY — DESPERATION, hurracinous torments for years collected in the darkest trenches of her soul, now shattering the exile she had naïvely imposed upon them:
"I hate the ambiguity to which you keep me enslaved. I hate what you do to me. I hate that I love you at all.”
Silence took her broken wings into its mantle, as Isabel’s body slowly melted onto Marco’s. With her final words spilled against the dryness of the barren soil beneath her, she once again searched for the beloved warmth that kept her so deliciously starved.
“I figured you wouldn’t agree much with Wagner’s Schopenhauerian approach to the question of love, Isabel,” said Marco, in a renewed attempt to lighten up the mood.
“Well — Schopenhauer was a bourgeois pessimist,” she said, attempting to conceal her earlier vulnerability despite her trembling voice. “He would say my dissatisfaction is just the way of the world.”
“Yeah. Remember Mariátegui: pessimism of the real, optimism of the ideal. Schopenhauer — and Wagner — want us to believe humanity is fated to painful irresolution, to wandering the earth unsatisfied with ourselves and our relationships. Like hedgehogs who desire each other’s company, yet can’t get close to one another due to their sharp quills. But you and I, Marco, are Communists. We are Marxist-Leninist-Maoists. And we can’t merely think like it — we must also act like it. We see love not as an abstract transhistorical concept, but as a part of humanity’s biological reality — the reproductive impulse, the social impulse — which is simply molded and expressed in different ways according to our present era. So under static, bourgeois existence, maybe love is condemned to these Wagnerian cycles of misery. Right?”
“I guess so,” he said.
“Right. But in the era of social revolution, love can transcend this condemnation: it can become a war machine, a motor of madness. It can drive two people — you and I — to sublate our life into one, and give it for the liberation of humanity. There is the answer. That is why I need you — not part of you, not you just on Sundays and Mondays, but all of you — and that’s why you can’t have me unwhole.”
Marco chewed on his bottom lip. “And what about once the revolution is won? What then?”
“Well — I don’t know. It’s not like our work stops, but it will be so different. Alienation will be a distant memory. Social relationships will no longer be mediated through production for exchange, wage labor, the value-form. And — you know — the nuclear family itself, and patriarchal conceptions of relationships and love, will give way to communitarian forms of social organization. And perhaps we will still feel unfulfilled and unwhole, and keep getting hurt by the relationships we form with other people — but we will have each other to figure it out. And we will have the support of a society to do so. We will ‘make way for Winged Eros,’ like Kollontai said. With socialism, we will grant him the gift of flight. And we will elevate love to the celestial throne, as the highest virtue of human existence.”
Marco sat in a pensive, hypnotic state, airs of nocturnes grazing through his every emotion. His answer never came, and so Isabel fell silent too, looking out over the sleepiness of their most beloved Huamanga. Suspended in the fine sands of gentle Chronos, Marco’s half-unfinished cigarette burnt a serene death in the coldness of the Andean pampa.