Even among the women who cleaned the hospital, who had no illusions, could afford no judgments, she was unusual. She was driven. All the nurses on her shift knew that, if there was a dirty job that needed doing, Maria would do it cheerfully, laughing at it as if she were changing a baby. No amount of bedpans or trash bags could deter her. Maria knew that the worst the hospital had was nothing compared to her own life. She knew it was a little crazy, but she felt if she didn't laugh, she would kill someone. A mess was just a mess, you didn't get mad, you just cleaned it up and went on with life.
Out in the hall, she saw her supervisor coming. So she walked to the nurses' station, picked up the trash, and emptied it into the big cart the custodian would take out later. Her friend, Elena, was turning down the hall, her back to the supervisor. Before Elena could say a word, Maria signaled her, rolling her eyes over her shoulder. Elena saw the signal and kept walking. Later, if the patients gave them a moment's reprieve, they could sit and talk over coffee, compare notes on their family tragedies. Elena had lost family, too, and she marched in the plaza to protest. Maria had a hidden agenda, however, and felt she could not afford to be seen, not yet.
Each day, hundreds of mothers and grandmothers marched in the plaza in front of the Argentine presidential palace carrying placards with the pictures of the disappeared, the family members who had been taken away by government security forces. No one dared touch the women, who were called "The Mothers of the Plaza. " It was strange, but Maria had to laugh, the big, tough government men would be shamed if they had to cart off a bunch of old women.
The hospital security guard walked by the station on his rounds. Maria knew him, and liked him, he was a family man, but the sight of the uniform made her feel like throwing the scalding coffee in his face and stomping him into unconsciousness. She smiled, said hi. She never betrayed her true feelings. No one but Elena knew who she really was. Little by little, she had found out more about her missing family. One patient had hinted at the building where they had been taken for interrogation. Another had told her, whispering, about what happened to pregnant women who were taken away by the secret police. A prostitute had been hospitalized, black and blue from a beating, and Maria had learned from her the reason why the soccer field lights were always on at night-- even when there were no games, there were burials.
She had confided in no one but Elena, and she had shared this secret only after learning of Elena's missing family. Today Elena had spoken with another grandmother who worked in Records, and she had showed her the address of an adoptive family with a boy about the right age to be Maria's grandson. The address was located in the suburbs near the city. She wrote it in her little black book, and hurried back to work.
When her shift ended, she packed up her lunch things and headed for the bus stop, calling goodbye to Elena on the way out. The oppressive heat lay heavy on the city. She was too tired to endure it, and started to perspire as soon as she left the hospital. She waited, exhausted, in the strong sunlight at the bus stop. When the bus came, she pulled herself up the steep stairs. A troop truck passed the bus as she rode toward home; she casually looked away, filled again with the passionate hatred. When she got to her stop, she went to the little grocery store, not so much for groceries as to survey her street for a van, a plain car with three or four men in it waiting for something, with no apparent reason to be there. To live, to find her family, she had to hide. If they knew she had survived, they would have no compunctions about killing her, too, to cover their tracks.
Climbing the long stairs to her apartment, she looked for signs someone might be waiting, saw nothing, put the key in the lock, and went in. She put the groceries in the fridge, got out of the uniform that made her look like her enemies, and took a long shower.
When Maria had bathed, she sat at the kitchen table in her robe, listening to the radio, thinking about the new home she had found, about the troops in the street. As night fell, she had another cup of coffee at the kitchen table, looking out the window over the rooftops of the city at the lights of the soccer field, strangely bright in the distance, bustling with activity late into the night, the exhaust of heavy equipment rising over the field, a pall in the night.
Tomorrow was her day off. She could go out to the suburbs and take a look at the house, maybe find her grandson. She was so tired, she had to laugh at the prospect of going anywhere. After a quick supper, she turned off the radio and went to bed. She was reluctant to go to bed because every night was the same. The same memories, the same self-doubt. Could she have stopped them? Did she fail her daughter? The memories of that night were burned in her mind and her sorrowful heart, and she couldn't help reliving the torment. She thought to herself:
"At first, there had been an insistent knock on the door. Impudent, aggressive, to be knocking so loud at this time of night, I thought. Rude, intentionally rude, and aggressive, there was a brutal, uncaring aspect to the knocking. It was 11:30 at night. My husband was in bed. He had to get up early for his classes. My son-in-law and daughter and I were sitting at the kitchen table, laughing about the baby she was expecting when we all heard this harsh knocking at the door. Before I could get there to open it, a loud voice: "Open up. This is the police." The police? What on earth? Something bad must have happened, I thought, running to the door. Now I wish I had sent the children away, to hide, to run, anything, anything but simply opening the door, trusting the police.
"They came into my kitchen, the police, the military police. There were nearly a dozen of them, in the uniforms of military police, with Navy markings. So strange, so incongruous, what is the Navy doing in my kitchen? Then they asked for identification. By this time, my husband was up, walking bleary-eyed into the kitchen. They grabbed him, handcuffed him, took him outside.
"I screamed. I began to see red. Everything was outlined, the edges of my vision were daubed in red. They took my son-in-law away. My daughter fought them, a pregnant woman fighting with these big men. I grabbed a frying pan, then something hit me, I don't remember much after that. I woke up on the kitchen floor, in a pool of blood. My head hurt. I remember thinking "good thing I have a hard head," laughing as I felt for the wound, a scalp cut over a swollen spot.
"I never believed it would happen to my family. We were not revolutionaries. My husband was a college professor, my son a popular journalist, with a column of his own in the newspaper. We certainly were no threat to the military government that had taken power. I had heard of the secret police squads arriving in the night to pick up suspected terrorists, leftists, communists, black marketers. Although their rights were trampled on, it was because they were violent, were subversives, plotting against the government, we were told. I had never feared them, never was concerned for my own family's safety because we were not like those leftists. We were humble, honest people, the establishment. Salt of the earth. How much more harmless could you be than an elderly college professor and his wife? We were no threat, and I thought, consequently, were in no danger. I had not realized that the fact of my daughter's pregnancy, combined with the family's position in the community as "intellectuals," made us an attractive target for the secret police. Nor had I realized how subhuman they could be. I had no idea, then.
"But they made a great mistake leaving me alive, even if I was bleeding and unconscious, on the floor. They had awakened a monster. I never knew, until then, what murderous thoughts, what barbarous rages, what uncontrollable fury I could hold in my heart, my mind. Until then I didn't know you could, you would, actually see red. I had never experienced that kind of blind rage. It was truly madness, when I thought of them taking my pregnant daughter, taking our husbands away.
"I got up, went into the bathroom to see how badly I was hurt. I bathed my head, then my hands. I put an absorbent bandage on the cut. Then I got dressed, put a hat on to hide the bandage. I had to get away before they came back.